What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tabloid Wars -- And a Tale of Murder

If you had imagined that a tabloid newspaper couldn't possibly sink lower than the News of the World has done in recent years -- tapping the phones of British citizens and others -- it's time to pick up and read the lively and wildly-entertaining saga of a nasty 1897 murder case in New York City. "The public likes entertainment better than it likes information" wasn't a comment by a contemporary tabloid publisher today, but one uttered over a century ago by William Randolph Hearst as he prodded his reporters on the New York Journal to outgun and outmanoeuver their rivals at Pulitzer's World, particularly as the rival tabloids fought each other for an edge in any story involving gruesome or bizarre murders.

In The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, Paul Collins (author of Sixpence House and the more recent The Book of William, about Shakespeare's First Folio), the author explores with glee and gusto the no-holds barred world of newspapering in the 1890s in a narrative that is built around the murder and dismemberment of William Guldensuppe, a German-born masseur. From the moment that the man's torso washes up on the southern tip of Manhattan on a hot summer weekend, the newspapers are on the case, turning it into a public spectacle. As the victim is identified, Hearst rents out the prime suspect's apartment after she lets her lease lapse -- his reporters allow the police in to investigate but block other reporters. Reporters cut telephone wires (except their own), hire passenger pigeons to carry sketches from the courtroom to the pressroom and even try to undertake a citizen's arrest of a possible suspect in the crime. “Really,” the Herald’s publisher had mused during the throes of that scandal, “the newspapers are becoming the only efficient police, the only efficient judges that we have.”

This focus on the early tabloid wars in the booming late 19th century Manhattan is the really fascinating part of this book, juxtaposed against the details of rudimentary forensic science, a murder conspiracy and life for "ordinary" New Yorkers at the turn of the century. One of the fascinating elements is the way that Collins hones in on the tiny details: when the man sentenced to die for the crime is taken off to Sing-Sing to await electrocution, he is able to glimpse out the window of elevated train the daily lives of New Yorkers in their apartments; in 1897, the community of Woodside in Queens revolved around the hub of a hay feed and general store and was so rural that ducks swam in the ponds. One of those ducks would play a crucial, if slapstick role in the investigation, and so hard up was one newspaper for stories that it would end up writing a profile of the critter. ("It is an ordinary duck," their correspondent informed readers...) His depiction of the "Wrecking Crew" -- a mass of journalists on bicycles whose goal was to outride the competition and hamper them by any possible means -- left me laughing so hard I ended up with hiccups.

This is a great book to read for summer, combining a true-crime mystery safely in the past with enough color about New York in the 1890s and the birth of "journalism as entertainment" of the kind that endures to this day to make it of broader interest. Those who might be tempted to mutter "but who cares?" about a century-old tale of reckless journalism might remember that only months later, Hearst would take great pride in the disproportionate role he played in pushing the United States into the Spanish-American War. From crime as entertainment, it was an easy step to war as entertainment.

Collins doesn't play up any explicit parallels or try to draw any morals, which is just fine -- that fun is left to the reader. His writing style is crisp and lively, doing justice to the larger-than-life characters that inhabit these pages. I found this both fascinating and fun -- a great book that can either be read for the historical tale it tells or looked at as one of the steps that led the tabloid world in the direction of headlines like the famous "Headless Body in Topless Bar" -- and the misadventures of the late and somewhat lamented News of the World.  Highly recommended; 4.4 stars.

1 comment:

  1. This one...plus Pete Hamill's TABLOID CITY...are on the ever-teetering LIST!

    Damn, i have to stop "visiting" here...too many good books...too little space in my house

    just kidding...i'll 'soldier on"