Tuesday, September 25, 2007

For want of anything better to write

Having spent the High Holidays high, as I believe one is supposed to do, I come now to the realization that I have deprived you, my fair and extremely intelligent reader(s), of a post or two over the past few, well, months. To attempt to rectify that, and apropos of absolutely nothing, I shall now post a short snippet of something that I wrote a few years ago, in the hope that it may amuse some.

It might not amuse others.

You have been warned ...


There is an inherent problem in putting one’s thoughts on paper, and that is the problem of speed. Somewhat like the asynchronicity of light and sound, thought and writing just do not move at the same velocity. I mean, what I’m writing now, I thought of at least five minutes ago (given the time it took to turn on the light, realize what time it was, find a pen, find my little exercise book, review the basics of letter formation etc.) leaving absolutely no time to write whatever it might be that I am thinking right now. Not to mention, of course, the fact that what the reader will finally (if at all) read will have been edited, compiled, churned up, spewed out and (horror!) word processed to the extent that it is extremely unlikely that it will even remotely resemble the original thought (do you remember what that was? I certainly don’t).

M once said to me that I have a lot to say and that I should write it down somewhere. I guess that that was to stop me from saying it all out loud, which no doubt disturbed her, preventing her from doing her all-important job of producing a journal that nobody read. Not that I am belittling M or her job. Heck, it was my job as well. But the awful truth is that no-one read that journal. Everyone agreed that it was very important – especially, of course, the authors, all of whom had something extremely important to say, and did go on for pages and pages saying it. The editor in chief was also convinced of the journal’s importance, but then, it was his job to be convinced of its importance. And, as he pointed out to me more than once, it was the only journal of its kind. We – M and I – joined in the chorus, actively perpetuating the myth, and assisting in turning it into a semi-reality, which affected no-one (there being no readers to affect) but ourselves (it helped put the cornflakes on the dinner table after all), and presumably causing a bemused scratching of heads at budget meetings.

I remember sitting in the “office” of the “Journal” pretending to work on editing an "article", when the phone rang.

“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” came a voice from the other end. Well, where else would it come from? “Is this the Journal of Historiographical Ichthyology?”

I was astonished. Someone knew about us and had even pronounced the name properly. But, I wasn’t going to be phased ...

“No.” I retorted, not entirely truthfully. That oughta fool them, I thought.
“Are you sure?” the voice persisted, “I got the number from the telephone directory.”

We’re in the telephone directory? I couldn’t really believe that, but maybe it was true. Though I was puzzled as to why. This journal was so entirely self-perpetuating that I couldn’t see why anyone would think to call. I made a mental note to have the number taken out of the telephone directory at the first available convenience.

However, the snippet of information that the journal appeared as an entry in the telephone directory threw me.

“O.K.” I gave in. “Yes, you’re right. This is the Journal of Historiographical Ichthyology. How can I be of assistance?”
“I’d like to inquire about a subscription, please.”

I really hadn’t been prepared for that question. I was beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable. I mean, we were a journal with no known readership. Who could possibly want to subscribe?

“You have got to be kidding,” I countered.
“Please. If you could just tell me how much a subscription costs.”

I honestly had no idea.

“I’m sorry,” I said, honestly. “I honestly have no idea. There isn’t a great demand for our journal, as you might appreciate, and I’m afraid that I can’t quite put my hands on the price list at this very moment.” There was no price list, so this was hardly surprising.

Yet, something in me hated the thought of letting down this first-ever potential customer. I had to find the subscription price. I couldn’t abide the knowledge that I was unable to provide such a simple service. I stalled, deciding to make small-talk.

“So,” I said, “are you an historiographical ichthyologist then?”
“No,” he said, quite decisively.
“Oh. An ichthyological historiographer then?”
“No,” the voice said again. I thought that I detected impatience in the tone this time.

I was puzzled, all the while busily flicking through back issues of our excruciatingly important journal.

“Ah.” I said. It seemed like the right thing to say.
“Ah.” I said again, because I had liked the way it sounded the first time.

The second time seemed, in retrospect, superfluous. Still, I was very curious, and I had to ask:

“So why do you wish to take out a subscription to a quarterly journal whose extremely important, exhaustingly well-written, exactingly researched and oh-so-expertly edited articles deal entirely with historical writings on the study of fish?”

I was certain that this question would be triumphant. Yet again, I was dumbfounded by the answer.

“I don’t.”
“Pardon?” I was beginning to get confused now. “You don’t what, exactly?”
“I don’t want to take out a subscription.”
“Oh.” – hmm – “then why did you ask me about it?”
“I just want to know how much it costs to subscribe. If I’d have known it would be this difficult to extract the answer from you, I’d have skipped you. But I thought: ‘the Journal of Historiographical Ichthyology probably has so few readers you can count them on one hand, so they must know the prices off by heart.’ Apparently, I was mistaken.”

I felt wronged, I began to plan a defensive reply, but in the end, I figured that he was right about the readership part anyway, so I simply said: “Actually, to the best of my knowledge, no-one at all reads this journal. We just print it because it’s got to be done. Furtherance of knowledge and all that. One day someone might actually find a need to look at the damn thing. Probably a researcher from a future century trying to find out what went wrong with the world in the last years of the twentieth century. I can see his opening paragraph now: ‘It is a little-known fact that, towards the end of the second millennium, whilst this world was teetering on the brink of social and economic collapse, a small yet influential group of people was busy churning out a quarterly journal comparing historical writings on the topic of the study of fish as a life-form. This probably diverted their attention from the world’s impending implosion – and quite possibly contributed to it as well.’”

“Interesting,” said the voice. He didn’t sound like he meant it. “But actually, I’m just doing a pricing survey. Your journal appears in the telephone directory between Journal of Historical Review and Journal of Historiography.”
“Apt,” I said.
“Indeed,” he agreed. “But apparently you can’t help me, so, if you don’t mind, I will leave you to your undoubtedly important work.”
“Wait!” I said. “I’ve found it!” I had, in fact, found an insert setting out pricing information, stuck into a back-issue. I announced triumphantly, “In 1969, an annual subscription cost $4.50. Does that help?”
“Not really, but I’ll tell my pet guppy. Maybe he’ll be interested.”

With that, he hung up, and the closest contact I ever had with a potential reader was severed eternally.

*** edited for spelling mistakes (ouch) 30/10/07 ***