Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Know-A-Couple-Of-Things

This is an oldie (but a goodie? Maybe? Well, hell, I dunno ...) that I published on my former blog but I’m republishing here because I told a very mysterious Someone I would. As for the recent lack of blog posts, new or old, I’ve been busy, okay? And my brain is rotting from too much indulgence in the booze and the comic strips and too much of the inhaling of the smug dawg urine stench that has overtaken my apartment.

Okay, that about does it for me. All this thinking has been fun and all, but it’s time for me to watch more you tube or whatever it is we do around here.

So, I believe I mentioned—as many times as I thought I could get away with, in fact—in my last post that I am reading The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, by A.J. Jacobs, Jr., which I mention again for the simple reason that some people achieve things like reading the entire set of Encyclopaedia Britannica (micropaedia and macro!) and writing best-selling books that Jon Stewart highly recommends, and some people achieve things like writing blog entries and reading books that outline other people’s more magnificent achievements.

In short, I’m really pleased to tell you that I’ve gotten about a third of the way through an actual printed book that’s not about how to give your man oral pleasure. What a huge accomplishment.

So, I can’t tell anymore whether it’s actually ironic or just alanismorissettironic that I am so proud of myself for reading something more substantial than the latest Anthropologie catalog, and at the same time am totally indulging in more eye rolling and sighs of disgust than I do during the typical episode of The O’Reilly Factor. Like, with special guest commentators Ann Coulter and token liberal punching bag Alan Colmes.

Because I totally know all this stuff already. Or at least, you know, some of it.

The reason I know anything at all that’s been printed in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and probably the only reason I know any piece of information at all that I can throw out during cocktail party conversation (which comes in handy a fucking lot here in [Remote Mountain Village], let me tell you—especially for a social butterfly like myself), is that—I think I’ve mentioned this before—I worked for Encyclopaedia Britannica for about three years, right out of college.

It was a weird job, especially for someone like me, who had never been particularly interested in facts and figures. I’m more of a general knowledge type of gal. So, like, French and Indian War? Yeah, I’ve heard of it. Happened a few centuries ago in North America, right? Or: Toulouse-Lautrec? Some short French painter dude, I think. What I did know really well—at one point in my life, anyway—was the Chicago Manual of Style; I mean, I knew my comma placement inside and out, I knew the difference between “adverse” and “averse,” when to use an en-dash instead of a hyphen, which foreign words to italicize and which to leave in roman font. I’ve forgotten most of that now, which is why you never would have guessed that in a former life I was a whiz copy editor. In my present life in the title office, I have been reprimanded enough times for closing my commas (“John C. Thomas, Jr., and Mary T. Thomas”) and using numerical agreement (“0.54 acre”) that I’ve just plain let it go (“John C. Thomas, Jr. and Mary T. Thomas” and “0.54 acres”), no matter how much it hurts me.

Reading about A.J. Jacobs’ experience with EB brought to mind mine, which began as a temporary position proofreading an online table about dog breeds, which was a fucking Easter Day parade on ecstasy compared with most of the jobs I did at EB. I’d look at the name of the dog. Spelled correctly? Yup. Move on to the average size, which I’d check against a dog book that had been placed on my desk, and which the editor who created the table basically copied stuff out of. (Which isn’t to say that EB plagiarized; they took a very harsh stance on that. It’s just that if a male mastiff usually weighs between 160 and 230 pounds, that’s how much the dog weighs, whether it’s EB or The Onanistic Chimp’s Guide to Dog Breeds that says it.) So a day of work consisted of looking at the table, looking at the book, making sure everything the table said the book also said, if it differed you’d take your red pencil and make a note on the table, and the rest of the time you’d just sort of look at the pictures of the dog breeds and make mental notes about which kind you wanted to get as soon as you were able to move out of your crappy studio that your parents had been paying for but now you supposed you would have to pay for because you were finally a Working Girl, and even though there were a lot of things you needed to buy, like new Copy Editor outfits to go with your new position, there were responsibilities that went along with being a Working Girl.

After a few weeks, the table was published to the Internet, and for the first time in my life I could see that my labor would affect thousands, even millions of people around the globe. People who wanted to buy a dog. People who had a dog but didn’t know much about it. Little kids who wanted their parents to buy them a dog. Students writing dog-related essays. Veterinary students. Dog-show judges. Dog store employees. Dog apparel manufacturers.

“How large should we make this mastiff sweater, Donna?”

“Is it for a male mastiff or a female mastiff? It says here on this thorough and consistent table on the Encyclopaedia Britannica website that the male weighs between 160 and 230 pounds!”

“Gee, that really couldn’t be more informative, could it?! I’m so glad that whoever proofread that table put in so much hard work to make it so accurate, consistent and easy to read!”

So that was pretty much how I saw my place in the world at the beginning of my tenure at EB. A savior of students, a curator for the curious, a fluffer for fact lovers. And I don’t think I was the only one. There were a lot of kind of nerdy, kind of socially inept fact-loving book-reading geeks at Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose only purpose in life was to get the word out, man: This is the truth as we know it. And, moreover, I knew it first.

Although, to be fair, there were a lot more nongeeks than you might expect—surely more than I had expected. There was the young bearded editor who headed the rock music Spotlight website; my friend from the indexing department, who met her editor husband-to-be the same night I met my librarian boyfriend, at the EB holiday party at Hard Rock Café or Planet Hollywood or one of those horrible, overpriced theme restaurants; and neither of our boyfriends were too geeky, although we were way too young and cute to be with them, realistically; the entire art department was cool and attractive in an almost threatening way, though one wondered if they were bitter from spending too many days looking through catalogs of pictures of beheaded monarchs and crunching numbers to see which ones they could afford, rather than working on their own art. And then there was the new internet department, which was something of a favored child compared with EB’s redheaded stepchildren—copy, bibliography, and macro.

At the time I started at Britannica—fall of 1996, I believe—I had heard of the internet, and had even been on the Ethernet, but I was only beginning to get my bearings on how to use the web. And I had to use it: It was part of my job now. I used when fact checking the Oscars Spotlight website, and tracked down Jerry Wexler so the rock music editor could ask him to write an article on the beginnings of R&B. But before I graduated college, I had only used the computer to type, which I was forbidden to do at EB (due to the largish staff of typesetters who were stored in a windowless room in the center of the copy department); and some bright boy who started working at Britannica a few years before me had run into the same problem I had with the internet: That when you use a search engine like google to fact check, you’re searching everything—not just the correct stuff, not just the verified stuff—your search includes the [Aunty Christ loves all her children] blog, for chrissake, where the author probably doesn’t even check any resources to see if the name is spelled “Gerry Wecksler” or “Jeri Ouexler” or “Gary Wexxler.” In other words, just because you google something and find that some lameass somewhere has published it on a website don’t mean it’s true.

Hence the golden boy of Britannica’s bright idea to create a search engine POWERED BY THE BRIGHTEST MINDS OF OUR GENERATION. That wasn’t the actual catchphrase for the search engine, but it was something like that—say it in a loud, booming voice, please: FINALLY, A SEARCH ENGINE I CAN TRUST, BECAUSE THE SITES ARE VETTED BY ACTUAL NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS—OOOOOOOOOH.

So that idea was hot for a while. The EB search engine department kept getting larger and larger, and hot young execs were brought in from internet companies, and money would get pulled from Book of the Year, so that, you know, all the facts and figures would be updated from 1997 to 1998, but maybe you wouldn’t have time to send it through for the fourth and fifth and sixth rounds of copy editing, like usual, so instead of Shari putting in a comma and Joan taking it out again and Linda putting it back in and then Joan taking it out, it just was never put in in the first place. Which I know pissed me off. I spent a lot of my time at EB just putting commas in and then taking them out in the next round. Just because. Because it didn’t look as good as I thought it would.

But we all know what happened to the Internet economy: BOOM! Bust. I spent I don’t know how many months’ worth of smoke breaks asking and listening to other people ask, “But how will it make money?” And it turned out that not only did no one in the copy or indexing or art departments know—no one in the entire company knew. Being the absolutely smallest kind of peon there was at the company, I have no idea how much money was lost in that venture, but it had to be a lot. And I imagine it kind of contributed to the demise of the in-house staffing right before I quit. Because first the search engine staff kind of faded away to nothing, or were re-established in other positions throughout the company, and then the other cuts came. The typesetters were relocated—to India, if you can believe that! Like, just picked up all these native Chicagoans and moved them to India, where they could save money on staff parties since the Hard Rock Mumbai is cheaper. (No, actually they just canned everyone and hired a bunch of people in Mumbai to type stuff for us.) And then the editorial staff was cut. And then the copy editors and the art staff and the bibliographers, Book of the Year staff, librarians, indexers—pretty much all the departments were ravaged, both in terms of numbers and spirit. With each cut you were happy to be alive, but you felt like a less perfect person for it. Your friends were gone. The maze of burlap-covered cubicles became a ghost town. You no longer had to hide in the bathroom stall until everyone else left in order to take a shit—because there was nobody else! It was empty. EB was in bad shape.

Actually, I’m exaggerating; I left long before EB fell on really desperate times. I know from an article my mom sent that the Britannica Building was sold and turned into condos, which seems pretty cool (if you’re familiar with Chicago, it’s the building with the pretty blue light on top, right across the street from the Art Institute on Michigan, about a block north of the Fine Arts Theater, which is a really great location, I would think), although one wonders where the collective psychic pain of the copy department goes after watching their friends, their typesetters, be let go, and wondering who would be next. Just in case you’re wondering, I’m thinking it goes to the third floor, where the library was, and it lingers there while trying to look busy browsing through the religion section. So buying a condo on the third floor could be a mistake, I guess is what I’m saying.

One thing that A.J. Jacobs, Jr., surmises from reading the EB cover to cover (to cover to cover to cover to cover to cover to cover …) is that the macropaedia articles (which are on huge topics like polymers and languages) are built by combining the smaller micropaedia articles. In actuality, Britannica editors commission the macropaedia articles, or sections thereof, from internationally recognized field experts, and then the micropaedia editors tear them apart into bite-size nuggets of information. (I think this is what happens, anyway. Actually I forget. But still, I’m pretty sure Mr. Jacobs is wrong on this point. Or that I’ve forgotten what he said. Anyway, what were we saying? Look! Something shiny!) Anyway, I spent a lot of my time at Britannica working on macropaedia articles, which, depending on the time frame of the project and the editor’s request, you would either get the entire article or one tiny section of it, which happened quite a bit with me—so I’d end up copy editing and fact checking Tocharian A in the Languages of the World macropaedia article while some other lucky bastard would get Romance languages, which seems a lot harder, being a lot longer, but believe me that it’s much easier to find books written on French, or even people who know something about the French language, than it is to find info on Tocharian A or B. I mean: Tocharian speakers had red hair. This one stumped me. Where does one look for that kind of information? They also wore a lot of plaid. The fuck? Now the expert was just messing with me. The speakers lived in China, for the most part, and they all died a billion years ago, or intermarried with the ethnic Chinese or something, and now there was precious little left of their culture for anyone to study, including locks of hair or remnants of their glen plaid trousers, so yeah, it made perfect sense that they had red hair, and seeing as how the EB library had, you know, just thousands of books on Tocharian speakers and plaid-cloth wearers and red-haired peoples, well, it was a really fun project.

On the other hand, fact checking macropaedia articles did give one a certain amount of leeway from one’s regular existence as an office drone. Despite the frustration of never, or hardly ever, being able to fill one’s article with the red check marks that would demonstrate that one had verified every single fact—red hair and plaid and all.

In the library, well, first of all, I was dating the assistant librarian, so that was kind of fun. If you’ve never had an office romance—well, you probably shouldn’t do it. But it’s fun at first. It’s like, all butterflies in the stomach and “I wonder if he’s going to come over here?” and gazing at his chair when he’s in the bathroom. So that’s kind of exciting. Then you realize that he’s a big goof and you want to stop seeing him, and you can’t because you’d still, even if you broke up with him, have to see him every day, which would be even worse having broken up with him. And then he decides to quit and take classes to become a computer programmer, and then you really can’t break up with him because you feel horrible for him because he’s completely broke and he just told you that since he ran out of toothpaste last month, he’s been using baking soda to brush his teeth—which is fine until you find out that the baking soda he used was from the box that he’s been keeping in his fridge to absorb odors. And that’s when you break up with him.

But anyway, there was a lot more to do in the library “fact checking” than there was in my cubicle. So I liked working on macropaedia. The worst article I had to work on was Polymers, which was hundreds of pages long written by an evil robot who had learned to speak English from a retarded Pakistani who had learned to speak a form of English from watching Next on MTV. (No offense to Pakistanis, retarded or otherwise, I swear. Major offense to the contestants on Next.) Luckily my dad (a retired chemist at BP-Amoco) helped out a lot, otherwise I have no doubt I’d still be in Chicago, probably sitting in a third-floor condo some dude just closed escrow on, feverishly trying to put the finishing touches on the elastomers section. My friend from the copy department, who I lived with at the time, was famous for telling a story in which the copy manager gave her the Angiosperms macropaedia article to fact check and copy edit, she then conceived her son, carried him to term, delivered him, returned from a two-week maternal leave, and finally, 10 months later, completed the Angiosperms article, proving that giving birth is a little less difficult than verifying a Britannica contributor’s written work.

And now I’m reading about someone else’s journey through the encyclopaedia I gave three years of my life to, and it’s fine; it’s kind of a funny book. It gives me a little bit of pride to know that some of the articles he’s reading (Chess, for example) I have had a hand in.

I don’t know if that makes me smart or not—if the smartest man in the world is one who has read Encyclopaedia Britannica from front to back, what do you call the woman who had to verify the articles in it? Who’s read not the complete set, but maybe one-fifth of it, or at least glanced through it to look at style, spelling, facts?

I guess I should mention that my favorite thing about the job was that I took on a project to triage letters our bibliographer had sent out to former contributors, who, as we remember, were all famous in their fields, if not outright famous: professors, archaeologists, scientists, discoverers, prize winners. She had written to them to ask if they wanted to update or change anything about their articles, including the bibliographies. Most wrote back saying that they wished they could, but they were very old; and the letters came back in blue pen, mostly, in the scratchy and angular script that one associates with the very old. Sometimes letters came back from widows or sons, saying that their husbands or fathers had been so proud to have written for Britannica, and they hoped that we would continue to run their deceased loved one’s article for as long as it was relevant. And it was sad to read these letters, both kinds, because the first reminded me that I would someday die, and the second kind reminded me that the people around us, whether grandmother or father or friend, deserve respect, because life is fleeting, and some day they’ll be gone. I worked on this project at night, after most of my coworkers had gone home. Some nights, depending on the letters I had received that day, I would smile and laugh and cry until my face was so pink and puffy that I’d just waste all the money I had earned reading letters and take a cab home so I wouldn’t have to be near anyone else.

1 comment:

Bryce Digdug said...

You are probably aware that as part of EB's advertising campaign, Lucile Ball was paid to say "I fell in love with a Macropedia!"