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Inside NCR

The Rouault cover, the ‘bottle’ deadline

A glance back over the years shows NCR covers leaping from high hopes to low farce, from broken dreams to glorious achievement in the world at large and the Catholic church up close.

This week we decided to slow down the world — to sidestep the hectic and take time out for the ineffable, the mysterious world even art can only hint at.

One revelation of this past year was the popularity of our bi-weekly poetry page. We’re not sure what this signifies in the great scheme of things but we’re not complaining. At turbulent times throughout human history, poetry has flourished. At times of unusual sorrow or joy, average people often search for exalted ways to express a more intense life. For whatever reason, the poems keep on pouring in to NCR. Perhaps it’s a sense that we’re at some mighty intersection; or maybe it’s just people being people when given the chance to string their most magic thoughts together in public.

A poem by Jesuit Fr. Walt Bado about George Rouault’s 1936 etching, “Christ and the Two Disciples on the Way to Emmaus,” led us to the choice of cover.

Rouault was one of the truly distinctive Christian artists of this century. He created an unholy stir in France when he gave up his conventional style to reflect raw life in a more direct and emotional way.

This picture is an old story. About two people walking along a country road in the days before cars. The road to Emmaus, as it happens. And they are joined by a stranger who turns out to be Jesus, making them famous forever. Only one of their names is mentioned, Cleopas, probably because he did the talking. There’s a 50-50 chance the other was a woman, but she didn’t get a speaking part when the evangelists got around to writing the story. Typical, many will say, typical of the men to leave the woman in the shadow. But Rouault is giving the woman the benefit of the doubt, and NCR is putting the whole thing on the cover.

Books are wonders of the world. Commonplace now and taken for granted, heaped on shelves and gathering dust or dumped after a quick read on the plane, they are nevertheless magic artifacts that only a sophisticated species like ourselves could put together.

Even the average book is a mixture of dream and crass commerce. Writers decide in a split second to write it, then sweat through the consequences of that decision for long months or years. They wrestle with agents and editors, wait hopefully for reviewers to love it and people to buy it. Locked, meanwhile, in the dumb book are all those words waiting to get out and make a difference.

We owe books and book people so much, we should raise them up and carry them along and help them out any way we can. This is what NCR tries to do once a year when we invite book lovers to swap stories about their favorites. And readers seem eager to do this, want us to know about and love the books they loved. This annual event has grown in volume — now it takes two issues of the paper to do it justice, and even at that we are forced to be lean and mean and avoid repetitions.

NCR’s Teresa Malcolm had the exciting but arduous task of selecting and editing the mountain of opinionated choices. And speaking of repetitions: As the letters came in we began to notice — how shall I say? — a trend (I was going to say we began to smell a rat, which we did).

The same book kept popping up. Then another and another. A three-book trend, to the exclusion of all others — and all from the same publisher appropriately praised each time. Sometimes all three books would be mentioned, sometimes only one. Sometimes one of the three authors would praise another of the three while manfully (yes) refraining from mentioning his own book.

These encomia of the same three books from the same publishing company came almost entirely by e-mail. Most came in a period of a couple of days but they dribbled in for a week. Soon we could see patterns in the e-mail addresses. Book 2 might be praised from the e-mail address of the author of Book 3, but by a third, hitherto undetected party. Some efforts enjoyed more ingenuity than others. Let’s call the publishing company Bow-wow (not its real name, don’t even bother to read secret meanings into it!). Wrote one: “I’ve come to love Bow-wow’s books over the last few years.” Another, clearly unsure what was the agenda of the conspiracy she was involved in: “I would like you to know that the book [one of the three] is my favorite. You made a [sic] excellent choice in selecting this book. It is definitely a must to have.” Another that began “Dear Friends at NCR” listed two of the three special books and ended: “Could you please send me several sample issues of NCR?” I guess this one figured that any paper that liked his two favorite books so well must be worth checking out.

They sent 64 submissions in all: the same three books, with honorable mention of a couple of others by the same authors and/or from the same publisher.

We detected a few other efforts at similar collusion but not on this grand scale. They all know who they are.

Sometimes it’s humiliating to be a book.

Our Oct. 1 issue invited readers to join us in saying goodbye to the old century and millennium and welcoming the new. We wrote: “We propose a special supplement, a time capsule. We will put our aspirations and apprehensions and resolutions and hopes in a bottle, real or metaphorical, and send them on some sea into the vast future.”

Readers seemed to agree this was a good idea because dozens of contributions have already come in, from the humble haiku to longer poems to essays to letters to posterity. There are complaints about the bad old past, and high hopes the future will be better. I confess to being impressed by the standard thus far, and think the mere trickle will become a torrent of entries before the deadline of Nov. 15.

Note that, folks: The deadline is almost upon us.

Someone wrote to ask if photos might be included. Sure, if they’re the right photos. Or other art that expresses hearts’ desire at this epochal moment. There are no restrictions on subject matter so long as it’s appropriate at the millennium. And no restrictions on length so long as it’s short.

It will all go in the issue dated Dec. 31, 1999-Jan. 7, 2000 — which should make it a collector’s item to pass on to one’s grandchildren. We already mentioned we needed to find a real bottle of some kind, and then some body of water on which to launch the bottle so that it will come ashore God knows when and be read with amazement by posterity. I thought this would be an irresistible challenge to the fertile imaginations of NCR readers, but so far not a suggestion has been heard.

All contributions, suggestions and comments should be sent to Message in a Bottle, NCR, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City MO 64111; or better still, e-mail to ncrbottle@aol.com

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999