Monday, September 18, 2006

Pg. 69: "Who Are You People?"

Who Are You People?: A Personal Journey into the Heart of Fanatical Passion in America digs into associations of Barbie collectors, Andy Griffith reenactors, Trekkies, ice fishermen, all-night board gamers, and a couple dozen more hobby cultures.

How good is this book?

Entertainment Weekly put it on its September 15 "must list"--right up there with the new Bob Dylan album and the Criterion collection release of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic Seven Samurai. (That's some impressive company.) And it's been praised far and wide.

Shari Caudron is the author of Who Are You People? I asked her to apply the "page 69 test" to her book.

Here's what she reported:

What does page 69 say about Who Are You People? Well, this book is about my journey to understand America’s passionate fanatics – those people who are crazy over-the-top in love with some thing, such as Barbie collecting or Star Wars or storm chasing or Josh Groban. Not having such a thing, I wanted to learn from people who did. My question: Could I find my own passion by better understanding the passions of others?

The narrative follows my search while also giving readers a peek inside a variety of passionate subcultures. I felt a tremendous responsibility to give readers an honest – but hopefully, respectful -- look at my reactions to these groups. After all, I was the stand-in for readers who might never have a chance to have such experiences.

As such, page 69 is fairly representative of the work overall. (She says with both relief and amazement.) You get to hear the narrator’s (my) thoughts; you get to meet one of the groups I profiled: pigeon racers in the Bronx; and you get to learn fascinating little tidbits about the sport – or at least those tidbits I found fascinating. Such as? Such as the fact that some winning pigeons can win up to two million dollars per race!

I uncovered this fact three years ago, and I’m still flat-out amazed by it.

Here’s an excerpt from that page:

Members of the Bronx Pigeon Club argue repeatedly, prefacing each new quarrel with the phrase, "You don't know nothin',” as in, "You don't know nothin' and you're too stupid to even know that." They tell snickering side stories about Crazy Al and Cosmo and someone named Eddie Cowboy, who thinks he knows everything even though he ain't never won a major race. They express concern for my well being.

"Joe!" they say, when the Great Musto lights his third long brown cigarette in ten minutes, "you're gonna give her cancer!"

Members of the Bronx Pigeon Club sit close and show me race charts. They stand and point to newspaper clippings. And they rearrange their seats with noisy, disorienting frequency. One minute, I'm sitting next to Reno. The next, Cecil Coston Jr., a young, newly retired police officer. If anyone starts to monopolize my time or attention, The Great Musto interjects and shoos them away.

"I said she's here to talk to me."

Picture a group of pigeons flocking over a tossed breadcrumb and you have some idea how I feel. In a word: pecked.

As you might expect if you thought about this kind of thing at all, once telecommunications and long-distance mail service came into use, pigeons were no longer needed for their delivery services and people began to race them for sport. Today, there are millions of flyers all over the world with Taiwan and South Africa being among the most zealous bird-racing countries. In Taiwan alone, winning birds can earn up to two million dollars per race. But in the world of pigeon racing, no country comes close to Belgium in terms of sheer devotion to the sport.

"Nine out of ten houses there have pigeon lofts," Joe says, shaking his head as if he cannot believe how far American civilization has fallen behind the rest of the world.

Many thanks to Shari for the input.

Interested in learning more about pigeon racing? Click here.

Click here to read an excerpt from Who Are You People?

Click here to read a Q & A with Shari Caudron.

Liane Hansen of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday featured Who Are You People? on her show August 6th. Listen to the interview here.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue