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The Page 99 Test

The Page 99 Test

Writer Ford Madox Ford had a funny test for whether a book was any good. He wrote, "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." Now, America Reads, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging Americans to read more books (http://americareads.blogspot.com/) is having writers put up one page--Page 99--of their books for others to read. It's pretty funny. I just went through my bookshelf and found a lot of interesting things on page 99--Yochai Benkler, in The Wealth of Networks, talks about feasibilityconditions and organizational form on Page 99: He is talking about distributed computation. The prose is as dense on page 99 as it is anywhere else, but here's a punchline worth taking away: "Natural or contingent, it is nevertheless a fact of the industrial base of the networked information economy that individual users--susceptible as they are to acting on diverse motivations, in diverse relations, somemarket-based, some social--possess and control the physical capital necessary to make effective the human capacities they uniquely and individually possess." Or here is a quote from page 99 of a novel I'm reading right now, Chang-Rae Lee's Aloft: "'I thought going by car was the most dangerous way to travel.' 'Private planes are probably a close second.'" (Okay, that didn't quite pass the Page 99 test.)

Here is Page 99 of my most recent book, a new edition, with a new Afterword of my travel memoir, Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan. The new paperback has been published by Duke University Press (and in case this seems totally self-promoting, I hasten to add that all royalties from sales of this edition go into a fund at Duke UP for subsidizing first books by young scholars, a worthy cause.) Page 99 happens to come from a chapter about a trip I took to Naoshima, a tiny island off the coast of Okinawa, and the home of one of the world's oldest religions, called simply Okinawan Religion, a matriarchal and communal religion. My friend Christine took me and we're staying with Mrs. Nishimae, an elderly priestess, the mother of Christine's student at the University of the Ryukyus. Also at her house (where she rents out rooms) is the "denki man," an electrician who learned English from GI's in World War II and doesn't realize that F**K is a bad word, one I cannot print in this blog. So I'm editing my Page 99 for that purpose:

?Oh, I think he?d rather go to Shinjuku,? she jokes, alluding to the famous entertainment district in Tokyo.
"F**kl F**k!" the denki man calls out and claps loudly aficr translating for Mrs. Nishimae.
The priestess is a cutup. She soon has us all in stitches, and I realize that, at the moment, she doesn?t want to discuss Okinawan Religion. I know it is about ancestor worship and the ties that bind the living amid the dead, ties against absence, the spirit?s blending with the natural world, those tombs facing the sea which meet the land which meets the palm trees, the sky, the human soul simply part of the world?s ebb and flow. Hardly a laughing matter. And tonight is a night for celebration: after all, the teacher of Mrs. Nishimae?s smart son is visiting.
Things gets wilder as Mrs. Nishimae talks nonstop, only some of what she says making it through the rounds of translation, but nobody caring as she pours us more awamori, the remarkable local brew, the denki man shouting ?F**k!? with delight every few minutes.
Outside, there?s music. We?d been told some neighbors would be coming by later to Visit the teacher of Mrs. Nishimae?s son.

"Everyone sings and dances on Kudakajima?and some of the local dances are pretty bawdy," Christine says, not knowing what to expect from the party making its way down the street.
An old man puts his head inside Mrs. Nishimae?s kitchen doorway. He?s holdings a sanshin (the Okinawan three-stringed instrument, ancestor of the Japanese samisen). Other people have joined him from other houses and they are passing around more awamori, unself-conscious in the presence of two foreigners. It feels easier to be gaijin here than on mainland Japan. The neighbors are roughly Mrs. Nishimae?s age although some might be younger, perhaps still in their forties. Mrs. Nishimae sets out a plate of delicacies (dried cuttlefish, dried seaweed, and other dried things that I do not inspect too closely), and Christine asks if I?d like to learn the Kudakajima dance. Everyone watches, smiling. as she teaches me, twirling her wrists, moving back and forth, as in a Greek circle dance. The old guy motions us outside where we all dance together, hands clapping, feet moving back and forth in a way that, to Western ears, seems syncopated and arrhythmic. As in mainland Japan, the clapping here is on the off beat.
The music gets faster or slower, the words change with the tempo, but basically the step remains the same, with some simple variations. There?s a lot of laughter during one song, and I assume it?s one of the bawdy ones Christine told me about. There?s a sea breeze here but still it?s hot and humid, even this . . .

End of Page 99 from Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. If you want to find out what happens, you have to read the book . . .

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