It's a very quirky sort of book. The book's jacket, above the title, includes an excerpt from the Foreword:
I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
This is my story.
Opening the front cover, some text in the Frontispiece informs me that the word "really" occurs 69 times in the text. The copyright page informs us that the author is
Not responsible for the lovely ladybug
or purple iris
or flirtatious glance
that was yours to enjoy
but which you did not notice.
The copyright page also informs us as to the primary locations where Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life was written: two cafes in Chicago.
Next comes the Reader's Agreement, which takes a whole page to inform the reader thusly:
You agree not to reproduce, replicate, or reprint any of the material in this book without our consent. [Oh, shit. -Me] When reading this book, you agree to give it your undivided attention – that means no pretend half-reading while calling and placing an order for Thai takeout. And the end of each page, you agree to thrust your arms upward and emit a loud, staccato Hey! just like circus performers do at the end of each stunt.
And so on. Maybe this sort of thing seems a bit precious or cute or pretentious, and maybe it is meant to be that way, as a sort of device to hopefully weed the book from the hands of those readers who are likely to hate it if they go farther than this. I thought it all very funny. Before the actual encyclopedia entries begin, there's an "Orientation Almanac", in which Rosenthal provides a bunch of lists designed to give some sense as to what life was like in the early 2000s. I found this section mostly familiar, and occasionally a little depressing. The 2000s were a mixed bag for me, personally, but my general opinion of the entire decade, across the world, is that any day now, humanity just has to consult its road map and realize that we should have taken that left turn in Albuquerque. But back to the book.
Right in keeping with the title, everything in this book is cast in the light of just how ordinary it all is. Rosenthal uses her alphabetical format to include many thoughts, almost brief asides, that are alternately hilarious or touching or just plain...ordinary. Here are a few examples:
Cab of Truck
Seeing just the short, truncated nubby front part of a semi truck (the cab), one is always compelled to point and say look. It's just an image you can't get used to. It registers in the brain as funny, odd, on the loose.
The French writer Georges Perec is most famous for writing a three-hundred page novel without using a single e. One can envision the everyday small talk that must have occurred while Mr. Perec was working on this book.
What are you working on these days?
I'm trying to write an entire novel without using the letter e.
Did I tell you, Georges, about our new porch?
I am a slow reader, and fast eater; I wish it were the other way around.
Not all the book is like that, however. Scattered throughout the entries are longer ones, ones that deal with weightier subjects. Death, marriage, childbirth. What's interesting is that you have to look for the entries that touch on the Big Things In Life: you can't just flip to Rosenthal's entry on "death". There's no entry on Marriage; try to find it, and you'll only read about her thoughts on Marshmallows. And while there is a temptation to just start flipping randomly through the book, there is a kind of narrative structure to the book. People mentioned in early entries turn up later on, in a way that's intriguing: one person is mentioned; later on in the alphabet, it's mentioned that this person was killed when Rosenthal was a certain age; later still, the circumstances of that person's death are described in more detail.
I greatly enjoyed the book. At times it made me laugh out loud, and at others, it really did make me think a bit about what Rosenthal is saying. There seem to be two different strands of thought underlying everything she writes: first, that what we consider ordinary is often really remarkable in itself, and second, and conversely, that we are all so ordinary that any thought that we are remarkable is pure illusion. Both notions seem to be present, but I think the latter one wins out a bit. Rosenthal writes, in her entry on "Other People":
And it is precisely why you think everyone is looking at you and your lopsided, Novocained mouth, when in fact, not only is the droop indiscernible, but there is not even a single gaze directed your way; you're filler at best. You're one of the endless chunks of extraneous, dispensible flesh flurrying about in the wings of the next person's (equally delusional) center stage.
(By the way, the one thing libraries do that really irritates me – although I can't think of how they could do otherwise – is their habit of firmly securing dust jackets to the book. I know why they have to do it, and I've accepted its necessity, but jeez, there are so many books that put content in their endpapers that this practice renders inaccessible. Lots of history books or historical novels put their maps there, which means that a chunk of map half the width of the cover is unable to be read. Same thing happened with Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. There's stuff in the endpapers that I couldn't read because the dust jacket was taped down.)