Guest contributor: Kristen Keckler

Reading Under the Influence: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence


Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life


The cover of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal proclaims: “I have not survived against all odds. I have not lived to tell. I have not witnessed the extraordinary. This is my story.” A memoir that doesn’t wallow in personal suffering? Actually, I like to read about major pain and redemption, all the countless ways other people royally fuck up. (Mostly, because it makes me feel better about my own foibles and mistakes.) But I was drawn to this promise of an ordinary life because, well, I too, consider my life to be pretty darn run-of-the-mill. Though I couldn’t help but think: could such a tale engage, sustain, and entertain me?

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

In case a red-eyed android from another galaxy—or maybe only the author’s great-grandchild—happens upon the volume sometime in the future, Rosenthal first offers what she calls an “Orientation Almanac” for the years 2000–2005—categories such as common slang, popular kids names, confirmed planets, what we take to feel better, and colors of the J Crew catalog.

Next, there’s a time line of Amy’s life, which includes meta-textual references to the stages of this book’s development among her discovery of Ziggy (1976) and her first college creative writing class (1985).

The memoir itself contains interesting cultural artifacts ranging from an anniversary card the author wrote to her parents to quirky little drawings of radishes, from a rejection letter for her novel, The Book of Eleven, to a parking ticket she appealed to the City of Chicago on the grounds of, well… karma!

Even more interesting than the timeline was the “Alphabetized Existence” section, vignettes inspired by words such as: Answering Machine, Anxious, Lace Undershirts, Return Call, Thanking a Stranger for Taking Your Photo, Jacket Bio, Nipple, and Dry Cleaning. Under these random-yet-ordered alphabetical categories, Rosenthal reflects on everything from how she signed her name in seventh grade to how she always fails to open a package—any package, from cookies to frozen veggies—according to the instructions. She’s also especially tuned-in to the ideas of chance and coincidence and moments of serendipity. She even conducts charming experiments and reports the results. For example, for close to a year, she left envelopes of pocket change around her city and included a self-addressed postcard for the recipient to tell her what he/she spent the money on.

Along the way, I felt myself totally engaged by her voice—earnest, witty, lively, cheerful, honest—and with her moments of mild Woody Allen-esque neuroses about why people—herself included—act the way they do. The book is chock-full of common gems the sparkle with the wry humor of self-scrutiny and the jaunty juxtaposition of odds and ends. “I’m thankful that people in real life don’t spontaneously break into song like they do in musicals and that some weeds look like flowers,” Rosenthal muses, and I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly, as if she were reading my mind.

What ties this seemingly random collage of thoughts together is a thread of personal discovery through an examination of the events we might on the surface cast aside as trivial or unmemorable. More so, Rosenthal is interested in language, but not exactly in the way a linguist is–more like a chef is enthralled with infusions or a Harry Potter nerd is fascinated by Hogwarts. We encounter words commonly misread or confused, words she’s fond of, and feelings she wants to discover words for, such as the state of “feeling both happy (actually content) and sad at the same time.” (Her suggestion for one? Wabi sabi, the Japanese concept that encompasses the acceptance of imperfection, the beauty of the flaw, transience as part of beauty.) Overall, the experience of reading Encyclopedia did not leave me baffled or disoriented, as you might expect, but in fact, gave me a sense of freedom, the freedom of being able to put the book down for days at a time and not have to backtrack or reconstruct narrative threads—I could resume reading from any given page. It was like flipping through TV stations, each one, including the commercials, anchored by Amy. Along the way, she was able to circle topics such as parenting, marriage, and the writing life. I got a sense of her everyday life with her husband and children and the small moments that make a story—and a life—worth telling. And I felt better knowing that someone else on this planet struggles with opening a bottle of aspirin or box of pancake batter.

[Kristen Keckler is a writer living in Ossinning, New York, but not in the prison there.  She teaches English and Creative Writing at Mercy College and is at work on a memoir of work and play called Sex and the Group Home]

  1. Eric Parker writes:

    I absolutely love this book and will be teaching it next spring as part of an experimental nonfiction section of a creative writing class at the university where I teach.

  2. Bill writes:

    I can’t wait to read this book. I like the idea of a catalog from life–it would make a great multimedia project, as well. But imagine it’s the rare person who can make enough interest. It’s like someone telling dreams at breakfast–you already have to love them to care. For the reader, love comes of beautiful sentences. The pressure on each item in an encyclopedia like this one must be great. Love it.

  3. Kristen writes:

    Amy, I once saw a video about performance art where “actors” were planted in a supermarket and they all broke into song around the customers–I’ll try to find the link for you because it was incredibly uplifting. I also did wonder if Rosenthal was taking the easy way out with her lack of structure, but she’s very convincing of its merits or lack of merit. I think we *should* take those notebooks of writing exercises and make them into a book. She makes it look doable!

  4. Amy writes:

    My interest is piqued by the format you’ve described…it does sound freeing. But…I totally wish that people WOULD break into song (and dance) like they do in musicals. I am the person who sings during the drudgery of meetings trying to make people laugh and I am always a little bit sad that they don’t just join in. But hey, to each their own.

    From a writer’s point of view, I am wondering if this is a legitimate way to salvage all those little writing exercises we have done throughout the years…makes me want to dig through my notebooks and see what I find. But now, too, I want to go find this memoir. Thanks!

  5. Kristen writes:

    Giants is Gigantic… definitely, as P & W said, ” Gatsbyesque” 🙂 You are going to love it, George.

  6. George de Gramont writes:

    Sounds like a good change of pace. But based on Dave’s thoughtful link to “Publisher’s Weekly” & the review I really look forward to Bill’s book which sounds like it depicts the opposite of an ordinary life. You guys are a great team.