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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

Encyclopdia of an Ordinary Life


The same two words, albeit in reverse order, sum it all up:

Home nursing
Nursing home

There are very few original things left to do. A white painting – done, a piece of music with no notes – done; a book with no words and no pictures – done. What’s there left to do? When I was about sixteen I started a Dictionary of Me. I never got out of A and the only actual definitions I can remember were:


The only grade acceptable to my dad.


Crunchy water

and that’s my lot. About twenty years later I came across The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry by Sylvia Murphy in an Oxfam shop in Aberdeen and I was gutted because this lady had written her book in the form of a dictionary. Well sort of. She starts off like I did, with a few entries, and then begins telling her story and pretty much every chapter goes like that but I was annoyed because I hadn’t written my dictionary yet. I had written a novel just not that one.

And then a few years ago, having written three more novels, I finally came across Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and this wasn’t some half-hearted effort, no, this was exactly what I had intended to write, a collection of my knowledge. It’s like when you ask your dad to explain something for the first time, well that is quite often the definition you remember and not the “official” one you learn later from a teacher or a book. I kinda wanted to write a book like that for my daughter so she could look up words like ‘dad’ and ‘daughter’ and get my definitions. I also wanted the book to be a character study just not a chronological one.

But now someone’s gone and done it. Okay it’s not my life but finding it really did take the wind out of my sails. And so when I got it and flicked though it I was so scunnered I simply stuck it on my to-be-read shelf and forgot about it. The problem is it has a brightly-coloured spine and my eye kept being drawn to it. Anyway I finally decided I’d read it. Needless to say, it’s an odd book to read.


Okay, here’s the thing. She gets it all wrong. I started at the beginning – luckily her name begins with an A and so ‘Amy’ gets to be the first entry – but after a wee bit I started to look up words and the first one I went for was ‘nice.’ Regular readers of this blog will probably realise that the two adjectives I employ the most are ‘nice’ and ‘interesting’ but Amy didn’t have an entry for ‘nice.’ She did have this one:


Soap and pond are both such nice words, pond especially. You think: small, quiet, calm, clear. And the ducks.

which is okay but that’s not what I would have written. She didn’t have an entry for ‘interesting’ but her entry for ‘infinity’ was interesting:


Justin came home from school with the announcement that he had just learned what even and odd numbers were. Okay, I said. So tell me: What’s infinity, even or odd? I certainly didn’t have an answer in mind; I posed it only as a fun, unanswerable kind of question. He thought about it for a moment, then concluded: Mom, infinity is an 8 on its side, so it is an even number.

If you think this book might feel a bit like Erma Bombeck then you’re probably not that far off the mark. The clue is in the title and in the book’s foreword:

I was not abused, abandoned, or locked up as a child. My parents were not alcoholics, nor were they ever divorced or dead. We did not live in poverty, or in misery, or in an exotic country. I am not a misunderstood genius, a former child celebrity, or the child of a celebrity. I am not a drug addict, sex addict, food addict, or recovered anything. If I indeed had a past life, I have no recollection of who I was.

I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.

This is my story.

Think about it. That’s most people. And, like most people, Amy Krouse Rosenthal reads books although not so many write them. Anyway this is part of what she wrote in her book under ‘book’:


To get a true sense of [a] book, I have to spend a minute inside. I’ll glance at the first couple of pages, then flip to the middle, see if the language matches me somehow. It’s like dating, only with sentences. Some sentences, no matter how well-dressed or nice, just don’t do it for me. Others I click with instantly. It could be something as simple yet weirdly potent as a single word choice (tangerine). We’re meant to be, that sentence and me. And when it happens, you just know.

I knew – in the context of the paragraph above – when I read her entry for ‘letters’:


The letters a, e, g, and s seem nice; k, v, and x seem meaner.

See also: Ayn Rand

I then went and looked up ‘Ayn Rand’ because I’d forgotten what she’d said about her:


Ayn Rand seems so mysterious, privy, snobby – in a cool way. I’m pretty sure it’s the y.

See also: Letters

This amused me no end because a couple of weeks before reading this I’d watched a two-hour documentary on Rand and it was nice to see her whittled down to a single sentence like this. I also get the y thing – I always liked that the west coast town was called Ayr and not Air in the same way that I think Anne is prettier when spelled with an e on the end.

The thing, of course, is that Amy didn’t just sit down like I did, begin with A and work her way through to Z; actually ‘you’ is the last entry and the page for Z is blank – surely she could have said something interesting and/or witty about zeroes or zebras. Anyway the book actually took her ten years to compile:

If it weren't for Charise Mericle Harper, this book would not exist, or if it did exist, it would be a very different book, or if the book did exist as the same book, it for sure would have been set in a different typeface. We have spent 10 years worth of Thursdays together, writing (me) and drawing (her) in coffeehouses. So many important decisions and ideas have come out of those Thursdays. – Behind the Scenes

That snippet is from the book’s website which exists to do a little more than simply promote the book. There’s a page where you can contact the author and she’ll send you a thank you. You can even listen to the book’s theme song (I jest not):


I know a girl. She's pretty thick. I don't mean 'round the waist.
I mean like she could write an encyclopedia about the shit in her head.
Well that's what she did. She wrote a book.
It's pretty wabi sabi. And by that I mean, it's happy and it's sad.
And she'd like you to read it, it reads:


I have not survived against all odds.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
I have not lived to tell.
This, this is my story.

Is she like you? Is she a freak? She always looks for meaning in the everyday.
She sees a license plate and thinks it's fate then wonders.
She wants it all, can't have enough.
How can you spend all day just trying to get through all the everything at last.
When in the end there's nothing?


Encyclopedia of an extra ordinary life.
Encyclopedia of an extra ordinary girl.
Encyclopedia of a child of the media.
She needed me to write her song.


You can listen to the song here.

The book is also full of illustrations like this simple Venn diagram:



I was also touched by the two police artist’s sketches of her that are in the book, one where her father provided the artist with the description and the second where her husband did. These appear under the entry for ‘identity’:


I loved her entry for ‘love’:


If you really love someone, you want to know what they ate for lunch or dinner without you. Hi, sweetie, how was your day, what did you have for lunch? Or if your mate was out of town on business: How was your trip, did the meeting go well, what did you do for dinner? Jason will stumble home in the wee hours from a bachelor party, and as he crawls into bed I’ll pry myself from sleep long enough to mumble, how was the party, how was the restaurant beforehand? The meal that has no bearing on the relationship appears to be breakfast. I can love you and not know that when you were in Cincinnati last Wednesday you had yogurt and a bagel.

You can read this and a selection of other excerpts on the website here.

Okay, is this just another one of those gift books that you give for Christmas, people flick though and no one actually reads? The review in the Village Voice says it “has miles of pillow book charm” but that’s also a bit condescending too. Todd Lief did a tongue-in-cheek comparison of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life to Encyclopædia Britannica part of which reads:

Fun to read?
[OL] Yes
[EB] No

Long articles?
[OL] No
[EB] Yes

Read the whole thing?
[OL] Yes
[EB] No

Nodded head?
[OL] Often
[EB] Rarely

Laughed out loud?
[OL] Frequently
[EB] Never

You get the idea. This is no more The Encyclopaedia Britannica than The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the Encyclopædia Galactica. One has to wonder if Douglas Adams had published the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and not simply a book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy if it would have sold as well. I think it would. The problem is we humans are a bit tied to linearity. We like our lives to begin with birth and end with death with as decent a gap in between the two as we can manage and yet who remembers like that? No, we jump back and forth through the decades with ease. I think of the word ‘cat’ and the first things I thought about were my mum’s cat Tigger, my daughter’s cat Rufus and the next-door neighbour’s cat Bailey – time and space no problem. And that’s how this book works. It really doesn’t come into focus until the end. It’s like building a jigsaw. You don’t read it as much as you assemble it.

Yes, this is a light-hearted book. If I were to take the format I’m not saying it wouldn’t be without its funny moments but I would also want to say stuff. That’s what books are to me, excuses to say stuff. And actually Amy does, just not the kind of stuff I would have said. And I know I said that at the start but that is really my only objection to this book: it’s not the book I would have written if I’d decided to write my Dictionary of Me all those years ago. Who knows I might have actually finished it by now or at least worked my way out of the A’s.

As a break, as something to pick up and read a few pages of here and there, it’s great. If the life in question had been a little less ordinary then I personally might have got more from it but if you’re looking for a different reading experience then this is certainly worth checking out.


Amy1Amy Krouse Rosenthal is an author of adult and children’s books. She is the host of the radio show Writers’ Block Party on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and you can read that blog here.

Her children's books include the Cookies series, illustrated by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer; Duck! Rabbit! and The OK Book, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld; Spoon, illustrated by Scott Magoon; and most recently The Wonder Book, illustrated by Paul Schmid. Apart from her Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life her work for grown-ups includes the film project The Beckoning of Lovely which you can read about (and even participate in) here, The Mother’s Guide to the Meaning of Life and a set of Post Partum Cards: A Handy Set of Postcards for New, Barely Conscious Moms.

Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Hallmark Magazine, Parenting, O: The Oprah Magazine, and McSweeney's. She lives with her family in Chicago and from all accounts has lived a very ordinary life. At least she thinks so.


Angela said...

This looks original and fun. I really liked what she said about Ayn Rand. Thanks for the the thorough review.

Sangu Mandanna said...

This definitely seems like a unique perspective. Thanks for the review, Jim, you always put brand new things on my horizon!

Elisabeth said...

What to say about this one, Jim. I enjoyed your post very much, very nice, very interesting and that's me using a word, three words in fact, that I forbid myself to use, not just the nice and interesting but also the very.

I'm not sure about this book, perhaps it's too much like a tour through blogdom, the way it is you shift from one sound bite to another, from one idea to another some of it quite ordinary but reading it in context and particularly the way it's expressed can make it extraordinary.

Thanks for this Jim. For some reason I've little more to say about the book and your review here though I'm fascinated by the police pictures. The artist has captured her resemblance amazingly well.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that’s the thing, Angela, it is fun and original. I think there’s scope for more books like this. It’s like The Devil’s Dictionary though, on the surface just a bit of fun but underneath a social commentary.

I try, Sangu. I actually wrote this seven months ago and never quite got round to posting it. It should really have been an article yesterday rather than a review but I thought it had been long enough besides people are now starting to think about Xmas – it is after all 'Super Thursday' and this is just the kind of thing they like to promote in the lead up to Xmas, if not celebrity bios then books for people who really don’t do much reading.

And, Lis, you’re quite right. I think what I liked about this one was more the idea of the book than the book itself. It is what it is and I’m not trying to say she didn’t do what she intended but I think there’s another level that someone – maybe me one day – can reach. I liked The Boomer Bible when it came out. That’s another thing I always planned to do about the same time as I was pottering around with the Dictionary of Me, a Gospel According to Jimmy. That never got any further than the planning (i.e. daydreaming) stage.

When kids are wee they ask why all the time. They expect their parents to know the answer to everything but I think it’s more than that, they’re interested in their parents’ take on things which, admittedly, they also expect to be right but if they get referred to a book to obtain a most accurate answer somehow they feel let down.

What I think disappointed me about this book was that I hoped that it would gradually build up in my mind a picture of the author and although there were pictures of the author and she was ordinary (so I can’t accuse her of false advertising) I didn’t feel what I was reading was ordinary, it was superficial. Even the most ordinary life has its disappointments, hurts and traumas. It’s like the definition for ‘A’ in my own dictionary. It says it all really.

Rachna Chhabria said...

This sounds like a cool and unique perspective. I like the sound of it. Thanks for a great review.

Art Durkee said...

Something like this could only get this sort of literary attention in this postmodern mannerist era, the era of Facebook and other social network sites, in which the minutiae of an ordinary life is regarded as meaningful and profound, even when it isn't. It's no longer avant-garde to talk about your ordinary life either online or in print. It might be fun, and it might be better than the rest of the pack of similar offerings, but it still has all the earmarks of a blog transcribed into print. It's like printing one person's (albeit clever) Facebook page. Granted, in the wake of "Julie and Julia" that is nothing new (or original, either), but "Julie and Julia" was ABOUT something, and clever to boot. This reminds me of those quintessential TV programs about nothing: "Seinfeld" and "Friends." In other words, who cares? So I see this as indeed a fun book, but original? Not hardly.

The other thing you mention, Jim, that ties this to social networking online is that you don't in the end build up an actual profile of the person in the book. It remains superficial. Superficial skimming and avoidance of actual content are hallmarks of postmodern mannerism, and equally hallmarks of the superficiality of much online personal interaction. Once again, fun, but not hardly original.

I don't use "nice" and "interesting" because in my personal lexicon those words are fairly dismissive. When you've lived in Minnesota, you know that "nice" usually means covert hatred or passive-aggressive annoyance. And "interesting" was a word my mother used when she felt she had to say something, but didn't know what to say, or really wanted to say something very blunt and harmful. "Interesting" is a word most people I know use when they don't want to say what they're really thinking, which is that what they're reading, or the art they're looking at, is pure crap.

Jim Murdoch said...

I definitely agree that it’s different, Rachna and I’m definitely attracted to telling a story in a non-linear fashion. Not sure I’ll be up to it but we all need stuff to aspire to.

And, Art, I’m not sure I agree. Diary of a Nobody first appeared in Punch in 1888. It was a different time and so the approach was in keeping with that time but I suppose the intent was basically the same. I’ve known a great many ordinary people. I’m not sure what would qualify one for extraordinary status but I’m pretty sure that few of us meet it. So I’ve written a few books – millions of people have written books. None of the people I grew up with have as far as I’m aware so that makes me atypical but that’s not the same as extraordinary. But every ordinary person I have know has also known misery, disappointment, tragedy and loss. And that’s where those nothing shows like Friends actually excel over this because, albeit in their own inimitable style, they do deal with the tragic because it’s so damn funny and the writers would be idiots to let those opportunities slip by. But, and I’ve said this before but it’s worth underlining, I do like the idea of this book and I think in the right hands it could work in just the same way as Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and RF Laird’s Boomer Bible work.

Isabel Doyle said...

I found your review interesting Jim, with lots of quiet insights and asides. I feel the Encyclopedia could have been so much more than it seems to have delivered. Rather mirage-like.
Best wishes, Isabel

Jim Murdoch said...

There is definitely a market for this kind of book, Isabel, the bathroom book that you can pick up and put down with ease. I did a post about two of them a while back: Whiffling in Liff or what to buy a constipated logophile for Xmas. I really hate to think of this book in these terms but, truth be told, I’m not sure that it aspires higher and all I hope is that the idea of the book sticks in someone’s head and they find a way to raise the bar a bit.

Dave King said...

I like the feel of this, the flavour you have given us. It comes across as a fun book that - pinching your plunder - any of us would have liked to have written.If I'm right - and I think I am - you have probably written your best review yet.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say I’m surprised you think this is my best review to date, Dave, but I refuse nothing but blows.

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