I have been reading Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists” and loving it so much I feel like hugging myself every time I pick it up. The book is about all the characters who work for an English-language newspaper based in Rome. (It’s not hard to imagine it as the International Herald Tribune, where Rachman did a stint.) This book has Rome (plus other exotic international locales), wonderfully real characters in full-blown quirk mode, and … newspaper stuff. Okay, Rome and everything is great, but it’s the newspaper stuff that really makes this book a treat.
Back when I was fresh out of college, I worked at a weekly newspaper in San Francisco. I started as an intern and kept hanging around until I think they finally felt embarrassed enough to give me a job. I loved this job. These were the last days of actual typesetters and, in what is surely not a coincidence, the last days of fairly cheap apartments in San Francisco. All the typesetters were artists – or cranks, really they were both. I used to go to Cafe la Boheme on 24th St. and run into one of the typesetters and hear about her latest painting, the near-deadline disasters, and all the alcohol that more senior staff members had consumed the night before.
I’m probably generalizing wildly, but I think people who have worked for newspapers have a kind of tribal identity that follows them through the rest of life. I think this is why David Simon focused Season 5 of “The Wire” around The Baltimore Sun and beat on it so hard. Newspapers get under your skin. (I feel this way and I only worked at a weekly. All I know is the Bay Guardian’s crusade against PG&E is seared onto my soul.) There’s a peculiar combination of really smart people, ambition, a curious failure to reach one’s potential, alcohol abuse, and the condition of getting screwed over by management that forms the perfect essence of newsroom – and that I think Rachman captures perfectly.
My parents still get two newspapers a day (it used to be three, back when there was such a thing as afternoon papers), and my idea of bliss is still an uninterrupted hour on Sunday morning with the New York Times.
We are slackers with only one newspaper subscription, and with the way the SF Chronicle seems to be going, I wonder how long we’ll have that. I don’t know about the newsrooms of the future – my impression is they’re actually just a bunch of Starbucks where the bloggers sit. Which brings me to another reason I appreciate The Imperfectionists: even though it’s acidly funny, there’s still this wonderfully elegiac tone for the passing of a treasured institution (done with a light touch, of course, it’s not morbid). Treasure your newsprint while you can.