25 Books to Read Before You Die

Original Essays



Original Essays | August 18, 2014

Ian Leslie: IMG Empathic Curiosity

Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
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The Powell's Playlist | August 6, 2014

Graham Joyce: IMG The Powell’s Playlist: Graham Joyce

The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit is set on the English coast in the hot summer of 1976, so the music in this playlist is pretty much all from the... Continue »
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Original Essays

The Life Encyclopedic

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
  1. Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

    Amy Krouse Rosenthal
    "Proving that sometimes it's not the story that matters nearly so much as how you tell it, Rosenthal has organized one of the most entertaining, compulsively readable memoirs in recent memory. Go ahead, I dare you to put it down." Dave, Powells.com
My name is Amy. My friends call me Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I've written a book titled Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. It is a sort of alphabetized memoir. It is 221 pages long, and there is an umbrella on the cover. I wrote the book to the best of my ability. I think the spine looks really cool. (Thank you, designer Dan Rembert of Crown Publishing whose email is drembert @randomhouse.com.) Now that I've written this book and titled it so, it's funny for me to simply see the word encyclopedia used in other contexts (e.g., Encyclopedia Britannica, or Encyclopedia of Household Appliances), funny in a good way, like I'm cousins with the word, like maybe how you feel when you see the name of your college or favorite band mentioned in an article — oh, that's me, that's my college/that's my band. I wonder if I'll always feel this encyclopedia affinity, or if it will wear off.

Separately, I also wonder about pilots, about why we don't customarily thank them for the ride. We thank cab drivers, for heaven's sake, and I don't think anyone would be offended if I said that they are on the exact opposite end of the safety continuum. It would seem to me we owe our pilots a very big thank you. Thank you, Sir, for maneuvering this lumbering mass of steel in the sky and not crashing it. The flight attendants are clearly trained to thank us passengers as we leave, and when I'm grabbing that little thank you on the way out, I always try to toss it back to the pilot — thank YOU — but he never appears to care one way or the other. He'll just be awkwardly standing there in the cockpit entryway, a too-large human in a too-small space. Still, let's all thank the pilots more, you know?

I also wonder if Christo's gifts are amazingly wrapped.

One last non-pilot, non-Christo thing I wonder about: why haven't the publishers banded together to regulate the number of books published per year? We're drowning in books here, nearly quite literally, by the looks of my nightstand and floor next to my nightstand. We need time to catch up. Look: it's possible to keep up with new music. It's possible to keep up with new movies. But it is absolutely, indisputably, impossible to keep up with new books, no matter how fast a reader you are. I've gathered some interesting statistics from these three industries (music, film, publishing), which I won't go into here because we've got other things to discuss, but I will say that I am planning on writing at length about this conundrum. I envision the final piece as either a tour de force last page essay for the New York Times Book Review, or as some new content I'll give to my friend for her website.

÷ ÷ ÷

I think you're reading this because you're trying to decide if you want to buy the book. I'm not trying to be all self-referential and meta-y, but I believe that is what's going on here; you're scoping me out. So:

Here's how I look: Here's how I look.

Here's how my book looks: Here's how my book looks.

Sideview: Sideview.

Here's how my book looks as a cake: Thank you to the Book Cellar bookstore and Cake Girls Bakery in Chicago for the amazing surprise.
(Thank you to the Book Cellar bookstore and Cake Girls Bakery in Chicago for the amazing surprise.)

People ask me how I arrived at the idea of presenting a (my) life in encyclopedia form. Can I first say that until very recently I didn't think it was that outrageously odd of an idea. Yes, I understood that the structure was not conventional, I got that — but this format made such perfect sense to me (on many levels) that it was more like of course this is how my book will operate versus boy, I'm really doing something zany here with the structure. That said, this question has been posed to me enough times now that it is clear that people are either a) indeed curious about how I came to this encyclopedia solution, or b) it's simply the least wobbly plank from which to launch a dialogue.

That concludes the preface answer to the real answer. Here's my real answer: I don't think that question needs to be answered anymore, or at least not anymore today. I have answered it head-on for a few weeks, answered it like an earnest school girl who's been called upon, and here's the outcome: it's starting to make me feel sleazy. Why is that? Why do I feel like I'm giving a bit of myself away every time I answer that question directly? I don't know. Maybe you know. Maybe you've been here before. But I haven't. When do they serve lunch?

I think that if I continue talking about the book this way, explaining it, dissecting it, doing all this fancy circus-performer back-tracking about the process — it's potentially damaging. You explain something away enough and you're left with a dehydrated mass. I'm picturing a rotten, pale, sunken-in orange. There isn't a lot of juice or magic in a rotten orange.

Not to mention: It's no secret that I speak to this question at great length (i.e., excruciating detail) in the "Evolution of this Moment" section of the book.

Not to mention: What if I'm remembering the creative process all wrong? What if I'm romanticizing it? What if I am changing the story ever so slightly each time I tell it, in an effort to improve it, polish it, keep it fresh and unboring to me?

Not to mention: Who cares.

Let's talk about something else. Did you ever see the movie The Razor's Edge, based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel, starring Bill Murray? It's really wonderful. I watch it every few years. I watched it the other night when my husband was out. Then sat and watched it again, start to finish, with him the next night. I can't recall ever watching the same movie on two consecutive nights, though there are many movies I've seen multiple times. But to lather, rinse, and repeat — so far, only Razor's Edge.

Books I can't put away on the shelf because I still want them near me:
Name all the Animals by Alison Smith
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Our Town Thorton Wilder

I should go. This is supposed to be between 1000 and 1500 words, and as of the second use of the word butterfly, I'm at 1114. My dad always told me it was better to say your good-byes early than to be the last one to leave the party. Took me a while to understand that — the party's so fun; I haven't talked to ____ yet; free beer — but he makes a nice point. So thank you for having me here, Powell's. Until next time.

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