Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Books Yay!: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

The Framingham/Worcester commuter rail line has been emitting some kind of sadness ray lately, resulting in me being all depressed and weird as the train pulls into Union Station. I'm not sure what that's about but I can tell you that this book did not help, despite its really being a lovely little work.

The Imperfectionists is a series of peepholes into the lives of the employees of a once-great newspaper. The stories are just connected enough for cohesiveness, and separate enough to avoid repetition. There are stories of editors, reporters, owners, readers and all the people that fall in and out of their respective lives. The connections between characters allow the story of the newspaper itself to wend its way through the book as well, showing us what the paper is and could have been for each person. The stories span a period of several decades and follow the long, slow death of the newspaper. The death throes of newspapers are hardly unfamiliar to most readers of today - the changes in format, content, delivery, etc. that precede an admission that the fight is useless - but are usually considered in a business sense. The Imperfectionists infuses this slow financial crumpling with an unusual pathos, and it is in places quite heartbreaking.

I would be selling the book short if I suggested that all roads led to the newspaper. The relationships in the book are complex and well-developed, which of course adds to the tragedy of the newspaper's - their livelihoods' - trouble. Most authors have a couple key relationship "types" that they return to time and time again, but Rachman refuses to limit himself to anything so simple. While his relationships tend towards the doomed variety, they all have their own unique fingerprint, and are singularly revealing of the primary individual, the other person in the relationship, and the connection itself. This is no small feat; writing compelling relationships is challenging because so much of love, in whatever form, is resonant primarily to those involved and hopelessly dorky to everyone else. I rarely commend books for their love and relationship plots, but in this case I do so enthusiastically.

Perhaps the most trying aspect of the book is seeing the newspaper fail to maintain the vision of its creators. The enterprise is so clearly loved and is vested with such high hopes and the belief that good news can change the world that seeing it slide into irrelevance is almost physically painful. It is, however, the way of many, many businesses, and I appreciate this book for it's insistence that we see business as something forged by humans and steeped in their emotions. For a reasonably short book, The Imperfectionists shows the reader humanity in a wide variety of sometimes startling places, and despite it's sad bent, it is well worth anyone's time.

Crossposted at The Outpost

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