Monday, October 23, 2006

Pg. 69: Tim Brookes's bookshelf

Tim Brookes is the author of seven books and numerous articles that appeared in Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Outside, the Boston Globe, American History and some 50 other publications. He is a contributing editor for the U.S. Airways magazine Attache and has been a regular essayist for National Public Radio since 1989.

I asked him to apply the "page 69 test" to his book Guitar: An American Life. He did a little better than that, responding with a report that quickly plumped up the size of the sample for the test. Here's his response:
I found four of my books on my office shelf and decided to apply the Page 69 test to all of them.

Signs of Life: A Memoir of Hospice

Page 69 is in almost every way not representative of the book as a whole. It takes place in the pathology department of a major teaching university, where I went to see a corpse. The book is about life, though, not death; the chapter in the path lab only went to show how insignificant death, and a dead body, is. It is simply protein that has lost purpose and meaning.

The strange thing is that I actually opened the book at page 89, and page 89 turned out to be exactly the spot-on quintessence that McLuhan had in mind. “[M]y mother’s experience of her dying was bound to differ from mine, or Sally’s, or Jennie’s, or Alan’s; in fact, like an asthma attack, it might be more harrowing for the helpless onlooker.” That’s perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my mother’s dying: not to project my own anxious and uninformed meaning onto her experience.

A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow

Page 69 does pretty well here in my book about hitchhiking around North America, first in 1973 and then again in 1998. It’s the last page of a chapter, and I sum it up with a journal entry: “My days are parabolic. In the morning I’m young and optimistic; by evening I’m the middle-aged man falling to earth, missing his family.” This is the Signs of Life insight revisited: what I thought of America had less to do with America than with what I was thinking, which in turn had to do with my energy, and my mood. You may think that you’re walking out to look for America, but in fact you hitchhike 8,000 miles to try to understand yourself.

Behind the Mask: How the World Survived SARS

Page 69 is pretty unremarkable in some respects: a senior WHO doctor is explaining how they respond to outbreaks of infectious disease, how different outbreaks call for different responses. It’s not an especially exciting page, but in a sense this is what the whole story is about, a terrifying global threat contained by a (mostly) calm bureaucratic response.

Guitar: An American Life

I’ve no idea what is on page 69. Wow. It turns out to be a catalogue of guitarists who learned on home-made guitars, guitars with one string, guitars made of cigar boxes: Jimi Hendrix, Carl Perkins, Blind Willie Johnson, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Eddie Lang, Albert Kind, Roy Clark, Josh White, Lightnin’ Hopkins. And yes, this works as a core sentiment. Even though half the book is about the making of a beautiful and fairly expensive custom guitar, the simple fact is that the guitar grew and flourished because it has always been a folk instrument, easy to make, easy to carry, easy to play at a basic level. Nobody ever needed a fancy guitar to become good, or become famous. It was always the drive, and sometimes the desperation, that carried them on, and in turn made that cheap homemade guitar all the more important to them, the traveling companion, the rider by their side.
Many thanks to Tim for the report.

Among the praise for Guitar:
“Brookes takes us on a riveting autobiographical odyssey through a charged, emotional world atremble with soulful yearnings, suspense and evolving American musical styles. . . . Makes you want to grab a guitar and crank out a few bars of the Stones’ “Satisfaction”. . . . His loving blend of lore and craft makes this book a must for guitarists.” —Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
Read this rave review in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Click here to see "Tim Brookes’s 100 Great Guitarists Who Weren't on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time List."

The author page for Tim at NPR is loaded with goodies. Click here to listen to him tell the story of his guitar and to read an excerpt from Guitar: An American Life. You can also listen to a number of his commentaries including "Driveway Evils," "Forgotten Resolutions," and "Cricket and Baseball," and hear him play a couple of tunes on his guitar.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
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