Sunday, October 23, 2011

William Ian Miller's "Losing It"

William Ian Miller is Thomas G. Long Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School. His books include The Anatomy of Disgust, which was named 1997 best book in anthropology/sociology by the Association of American Publishers.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Losing It, in which an aging professor laments his shrinking brain, which he flatters himself formerly did him noble service: a plaint, tragic-comical, historical, vengeful, sometimes satirical and thankful in six parts, if his memory does yet serve, and reported the following:
Were I to have read p. 99 of Ford Madox Ford’s great Parade’s End without the first 98 pages in my head I would never have gone to page 1 to start, and I would have been poorer for not having read it. But you know what he means, don’t you? Given my confusing numbers, wandering mind, or not seeing as clearly as I once did, I mistook the request to contribute to this blog as a p. 69 rule. That page in Losing It has some nice stuff: how “wise” and “wisdom” were just as likely to describe the skill it took to pierce a Viking through the neck, as to give tedious advice in the style of Polonius.

But p. 99 has its points too. This part of book deals with complaining, its various styles, from whines to laments. Specifically, p. 99 deals with moaning and groaning. An old dying saint complains about the pain he is in. He wishes he had died younger as a martyr, a much nobler death, than the death by dysentery which is taking months to finish him off. He complains that God promised him martyrdom and He has reneged, thus turning his lack of saintly stoicism in the face of this kind of death into something to blame God for. The good saint, Anskar is his name, could have easily assured himself a martyr’s crown when young, because his mission was to proselytize pagan Vikings and Slavs, who were not loathe to making martyrs of such types as he; but Anskar apparently was too likeable to get himself whacked. I must confess the paragraph to follow starts on p. 98 and hobbles over to 99:
Anskar’s complaint about not having died a martyr is a double complaint. It can be taken at face value as sincerely meant. At some level of his consciousness, he wanted a martyr’s crown. But lamenting his failure to get killed by pagan Swedes or Slavs is also very much a complaint about his present physical discomfort: “Oh God, why couldn’t I have been killed in an honorable way, dying a holy martyr, over in an hour at most, instead of this drawn-out illness with its piercing pain and degrading lack of bowel control? Let me die already, I can’t take it anymore.” Without wishing to impugn the sincerity of his faith and his commitment to laboring ably and tirelessly for his church, a desire to have been a martyr is not the same as a desire to be a martyr; a desire to have died young cannot meaningfully be acted upon, unless you can travel backwards in time.
My Uncle Louie used to have a mantra, 99, 99, 99, which was meant to get him alive to that age. He only got to p. 79 of his life. I am at p. 65, and the page does not warrant turning over too many more, unless the story gets better fast.
Learn more about Losing It at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue