The Booky Man: San Francisco Panorama

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So you want to write fiction?

Let’s do an experiment.

Pick up a newspaper. Go on—you used to do it without making a face.

Now, open it to any random page.

Hey, cool! We’re in the obituaries.

How about this short, freeze-dried account of the life of a woman we’ll call Lois?

She was born and raised in rural Alabama. Her husband died on some unnamed hill in Italy six months after their 1943 marriage. In the 1950s, misfortune struck again—Lois lost her right arm in a car wreck. Yet she stood with an empty sleeve in front of classrooms for the next 50 years, coaxing indifferent and savagely cruel children into diagramming sentences on blackboards, into reading Romeo and Juliet. She died in a nursing home alone.

Drop this obit into a vat of imagination, stir briskly, and you’ve got worthy fiction. Thanks to a spare few sentences in a good old-fashioned newspaper, the right writer in the right place could germinate something important.

Dave Eggers, one of modern literature’s resident geniuses, reminded us recently of what we’re losing as the hand-held device known as the daily newspaper goes the way of Brontosaurus.

In December 2009, Eggers brought out issue 33 of McSweeney’s as a broadsheet. His crafty, influential hipster-merit-badge-of-a-magazine morphed to celebrate—and possibly eulogize—the newspaper as a publishing form.

Thick as a tombstone, San Francisco Panorama arrived as 120 full-color pages of newspaper, with a 112-page magazine and a 96-page book section, plus two giant double-sided posters. Contributors? Eggers recruited a who’s who of writers, artists and photographers: Michael Chabon, Steven King, Miranda July, Junot Diaz, Chimamanda Adichie, Art Spiegelman, and 144 others.

A novelist need only look as far as the front page of this encyclopedic newspaper for a great book idea. Patricia Decker and Robert Porterfield teamed on an exhaustive, magazine-style cover story on a new bridge going up across San Francisco Bay.

Here’s the tease: It’s being built in China. It’s taken twice as long as expected. And it will cost double what you’ve been told.

The title is “Unparalleled Bridge, Unprecedented Cost.”

There’s a novel, right there. Throw a few colorful characters into the plot (how about a former world champion body-builder who becomes a movie star and then Governator through a good old-fashioned palace coup?). Add the intrigues that come with a price tag of $12 billion for an outsourced project in a state that gets down on its knees nightly to pray John Sutter returns from the grave to find gold again somewhere—anywhere—in The Golden State…well, I’d happily read that book.

San Francisco Panorama dramatizes the best thing and the worst thing about the newspaper.

The best? The newspaper creates a place to roam, with hills to stand on that let us see the world under construction across yonder bay…or the world under destruction in Kabul. Newspaper stories and photographs are flints, struck against the stony mind. Sparks catch fire, inspire, provoke.

The worst thing about a newspaper? It’s the fatal flaw newspapers and Brontosaurus have in common.

Bulk.

One glance at Panorama daunts even a brave reader. Two pounds of paper and newsprint, no matter how aggressively you read, feels like a challenge. How easy and fast (and, yes, more shallow) the articles online, with summary headlines, the sound bites of information, the diet pills of imagination. Online stories, even with all those gorgeous electrons, feel like tater tots compared to this au gratin. But you could fill spare hours for the next couple of months reading this publication alone. It would be worth the read. It would illuminate—heck, it might bring apotheosis.

But who has time in these times?

How does one indulge this laudable desire—to read and savor all a newspaper’s beautiful writing and information—and get the kid to school, meet the roofer, take down the holiday decorations, haul the trash to the curb, make the deadline, run by the Staples for a new printer, drive the cat to the vet, grab the bite, clean the dishes, fill up the tank, answer the critical email, pitch the client, pick up the dry cleaning, get in the reps, fill the prescription, drop by the book store, return the call, mail the check, make the conference call, mop up the spill, change the bulb, make it to practice, put supper on the table, say the prayers?

Time is the disease killing our newspapers.

Someone should write a book about it.

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