Your Opinion or Your Life!

A woman decked in olive green army issue and combat boots stands in the doorway of a swaying el car casing the occupants. Dog tags dangle from her neck. Her beret is the smoldering red of her lips, which could stop traffic at a six-way intersection. Imagine yourself a passenger who glanced up from a book and now stares transfixed. “What in God’s name!” you think. Returning the stare, the woman, followed by some guy with a TV camera, advances on you and speaks in a preposterous accent: “I’m Natasha for Guerrilla Book Reviews. What’s that you’re reading?”

Public-access television doesn’t get more dramatic. “Get that camera out of my face,” Natasha is sometimes told. But the book is not in the rider’s hands by accident. To ask about the book is to ask about the reader who chose it, and when confronted by Natasha and the hovering camera most riders open up. They talk about what the book means to them, they eventually read from it, and some work themselves into such a state of passion they miss their stop.

As often as not, Brian Cox is the guy behind the camera. When Cox was in college in Nova Scotia in the mid-80s he would go up to students in the cafeteria, ask them what they were reading, then write up the encounters in his column for the school paper. “When I moved here and I was introduced to the Evanston Community Media Center,” he says, referring to the local public-access station, “I was trying to think of an idea for a TV show, and I thought I’d just take my book reviews to television. But I thought it needed something, a hook.”

“Carlos Libro,” guerrilla reviewer, was the hook. “Sunglasses, beret, camouflage T-shirt, cargo pants–your stereotypical guerrilla motif,” says Cox. After about five shows he decided he needed more than books to fill half an hour, so he started interdicting strangers outside video stores and multiplexes and asking them to talk about the movies they were watching. But the book segment remains the heart and soul of Guerrilla Reviews.

Natasha looks for readers in cafes, parks, and other likely spots, but the lonely el is the perfect, if not the easiest, place to find them. “Some days I’ll get on a car and there’ll be three people with books,” Cox says. “Some days we’ll have to ride 20 minutes before we see one person.”

Guerrilla Reviews can be seen on cable in the north suburbs and Evanston. Cox, who’s been at this four years, produces one new show a month and is no longer in front of the camera. The three actors and second cameraman he’s hired work a few hours a week and make next to nothing, but they share Cox’s faith that their show could catch on commercially. It’s won a few video awards, and it’s full of goofy energy. “I’m trying to bring it to the marketplace,” says Cox, who’s started his own company, Two Worlds Productions.

Sarah McComber, a 28-year-old bartender and actress, is Natasha Libro. “Of the shooting we’ve done, being on the el is my favorite,” she says. “It’s really exciting. People are in such a weird place on the el. They’re in their own little box. They pick their nose and they don’t think other people can see them. It’s fascinating to walk up to people not knowing how they’re going to react.”

There are only so many movies people go to or rent, and the rest of us have probably heard of them. A book can be anything. “Yesterday a girl was reading The Sound and the Fury,” says Cox, “and we had a girl reading a Spanish edition of a Harry Potter book. She wanted to increase her Spanish. I had one woman a couple of years ago who said she was reading the ‘loose women’s bible.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ ‘It’s a bible for loose women.’ OK. I had a guy reading 14th-century Italian poetry.”

“On our last shoot there was a guy who I knew I had way more information from than I could ever use,” McComber says, “but he was so excited about this book he was reading I couldn’t get him to stop. It was a book talking about warlike tendencies in people going back to the hunter-gatherer times and pastoral times. We have this idea that way in the past, before cities and big civilizations, there wasn’t war. And there’s this book saying there is all this evidence that people have always been warlike, whether fighting in the name of the emperor or king or fighting in the name of their little family clan.”

A woman on the el told her Memoirs of a Geisha was “awesome,” so McComber headed to the library and checked it out. She hasn’t run into anybody yet reading a book she’d already read herself. With one exception.

“I interviewed a woman reading a Bible,” she says. “It was frustrating for me because she was reading a passage and I was thinking what great material there is in the Bible and how excited I would be talking about the Bible and what I would pick out to read. Something from Revelations, absolutely. It’s so dramatic and powerful it’s like the science-fiction chapter of the Bible. The Bible, whether you buy it or not, is this really cool story, powerful personalities going through these crazy experiences.”

What did the woman read?

“Something in the beginning, where there were all these ‘begots.'”

Closed Book

There is life after death in the magazine world. “As hard as it is to start a magazine–and it’s one of the most difficult, foolhardy missions you can start on,” Jerome Kramer says knowingly, “it’s as hard to kill a magazine. They tend to die and come back to life.”

The magazines that last long enough to be noticed when they’re gone are genuinely missed, and extreme measures are often taken to revive them. “Doubletake went underwater and came back up,” says Kramer, naming an excellent example. And of course there’s Life, which the last I heard was about to be resurrected yet again as a Sunday newspaper supplement.

So although in mourning, Kramer’s not totally without hope. In 1998 he and his partner, Mark Gleason, launched Book magazine as a newsy, personality-driven bimonthly for people who read. Gleason, the publisher, lived in New Jersey, and Kramer, the editor, lived on my block in Chicago and wanted to stay. But what he called a “house divided” didn’t make much sense, so in 2001 he took the editorial end of the operation to New York. Months later he told me, “We’ve benefited from the dire situation that editorial talent finds itself in in New York. A number of our recent hires are people who were at great magazines that didn’t survive.”

Neither did Book, which went under last month when Barnes & Noble decided to stop giving it money. “We still have an ear to the ground for a miraculous solution,” Kramer says, “but certainly our momentum has slowed significantly. We wound up so inextricably linked to Barnes & Noble that it’s hard to imagine untangling with them and getting in with somebody else.”

Kramer is prepared to settle for a lower order of immortality. “Many a magazine doesn’t make it to year five,” he muses. “I hope at worst we make it to that mythological pantheon of magazines people vaguely remember as being noble.” Like the Saturday Review of Literature, presumably. But there’s also the example of Britain’s Vanity Fair, which lived on in myth so robustly that seven decades after it died it came back to life on another continent.

About the same time Kramer went east, Barnes & Noble bought half the magazine and starting giving a year’s subscription to anyone who signed on to the chain’s new Readers’ Advantage program. “We quickly ramped up from 100,000 to about 1.6 million readers,” says Kramer, “though the rate bases always stayed at about 700,000. We played conservatively. And when it came down to converting those people over [to paying subscribers] we ran into a concrete wall. A 5 percent renewal rate is terrific for a direct-mail program, but our original plan was built on something much more optimistic.”

Readers weren’t about to pay for something they’d been getting for nothing and hadn’t even asked for. After a year Barnes & Noble, deciding it had been too generous, stopped giving away Book as a premium, though it went on underwriting the magazine. “Barnes & Noble asked that we add their name above our name,” says Kramer, and “it wound up saying, in much smaller type, ‘Barnes & Noble presents.’ That led some people to think the name had changed, and that certainly had a chilling effect on the magazine’s appearance on other newsstands.”

When Book was no longer a premium its readership plummeted, and Kramer and Gleason decided early this year to promise advertisers no more than 150,000 readers–albeit mostly readers they could be confident wanted the magazine, paid for it, and actually opened it. In a way, they were starting over. “Having to reintroduce yourself to the ad community and to subscribers became problematic,” says Kramer. Barnes & Noble displayed Book conspicuously in its stores and helped cover its losses. “We lost about $1 million last year,” Kramer says. “It’s safe to assume we’d have needed something like that moving forward to next year.”

After several weeks working with the chain’s director of marketing to find new ways of selling Book, Kramer and Gleason were called into a meeting in mid-October with the chairman of the board and the chief financial officer. “They were very respectful and courteous and regretful, but there certainly didn’t seem to be room to do anything,” says Kramer. “They’d made the decision that they were not magazine publishers. I think they just lost their appetite for it. We knew we were troubled, but we thought we’d hit the marks we needed to hit and were making progress and it made sense to go forward.” But from Barnes & Noble’s point of view, which Kramer can appreciate, it made just as much sense not to go forward. “Nobody thinks Barnes & Noble made a bad decision,” he says, and he’s grateful to the chain for providing Book with the wherewithal to go under in style.

Don McLeese, a frequent contributor, e-mailed me this week to salute the magazine’s conduct in its final hours. “I was amazed to receive a final check today from Book, more money and more quickly than I’d anticipated,” McLeese wrote. “Where most folks in similar positions just cut and run, they paid in full for the last issue on the stands and paid a (generous, under the circumstances) kill fee for assignments in the issue that will never see print. Almost anyone who has ever freelanced has been stiffed by someone with more money but fewer scruples than these folks.”

In 1998 Kramer was excited about what he was setting out to do. It was a time, he recalls, when “the Oprah club was the biggest thing going,” and he was certain America was entering an era of “post-anti-intellectualism, a new moment for literacy.” Book would sate a hunger “for something other than the navel-gazing-east-coast-literati approach to talking about books.”

He goes on, “Maybe that moment really was there and passed. Or maybe it never was.” The east-coast literati go on talking while Book is history. Kramer says, “If I could do this tomorrow with the same guaranteed upside and downside I’d sign up in a heartbeat.”

Olympian Task

“There’s gold in American innocence,” confided A.E. Eyre.

It’s our foremost renewable resource, I said.

“No publisher ever lost money wallowing in that bygone era when gaslights flickered, men wore spats, and the ice cream cone was being invented.”

My friend Eyre had been reading The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. “Now on my bedside table,” he announced, “is The White City, a first novel by Alec Michod, a local lad already billed as a bold new talent.”

Eyre would die to be called a bold new talent.

Surely two White City books exhaust the commercial potential of the Columbian Exposition, I said. Eyre agreed. “So I’ve set my sights on the next occasion when the ice cream cone was invented. Not to mention the hot dog. I’ve located the untold story of the 1904 world’s fair in Saint Louis.”

A refugee from that fine city, I wondered what the untold story could possibly be. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition haunts the memory of my hometown, where the clock stopped forever when the lights of the fair went out.

“The Olympic Games,” said Eyre.

A trivial sidelight. Those games were a joke, I said.

“On the contrary,” said Eyre. “To cite the title of a major work of soon-to-be-written popular history that will ride a centennial wave to the top of every 2004 best-seller list, they were The Games That Made America.”

The highlight of the 1904 games was the marathon. The winner was cheered wildly and photographed with Alice Roosevelt, the president’s daughter. But then it was established he’d ridden 11 of the 26 miles in an automobile. It was also established that the runner-up had stayed on his feet thanks to frequent nonlethal doses of strychnine sulfate and brandy.

Surely you don’t mean to identify Saint Louis as the birthplace of athletic scandal, I said.

“Not the birthplace,” Eyre allowed, “though certainly a major way station. The more important point is that 533 of the 625 athletes who competed were American and 238 of the 282 medals were won by Americans. Some say these games weren’t a true international competition. Some say it’s evidence of their inconsequence that the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, didn’t bother to attend, nor did a single French athlete.”

It’s not that some say that, I told Eyre. Everyone says that. The games were such a joke that a quasi-Olympics was held in Athens two years later to try to wash away the shame.

“People will change their tune a year from now,” said Eyre. “After they read The Games That Made America they’ll know 1904 for what it was, the year America learned to say ‘To hell with France.’ The year Americans discovered that it’s much easier for a nation to win everything and cover itself with glory if the rest of the world doesn’t show up. Did you know it was thanks to 1904 that our nation could boast of a year-old competition between the champions of the American and National baseball leagues as the World Series–though the world had nothing to do with this series and barely knew the sport?”

Is that true? I wondered.

“It will be when I’m done,” said Eyre.

It goes without saying, I observed, that your insight has implications that range far beyond sport.

Eyre nodded. “Iraq is unthinkable without the 1904 Saint Louis games.”

Kup’s Game

Old-time Chicago journalists are better remembered for their shenanigans than their work. You’d figure a gossip columnist to be especially shameless, but Kup was upright, which must have helped the rest of the business change around him. Unlike a Hedda Hopper or Walter Winchell, the guy in Chicago was someone stars and starlets could afford to ignore. But they didn’t. Kup was fair and straight, not to mention good company, and the most famous coastal people became his confidantes and his friends. In a way, he kept Chicago on the map. The kind of city he wrote about was the kind of person he was–broad shouldered and guileless, ready to appreciate a good steak and a good tune. He made it easier for Chicago to like itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andre J. Jackson.