Tuesday, June 24, 2003

THE METAMORPHOSIS OF A FAKE MEDICAL GUIDE CO-EDITOR

When the idea for The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases first came up, I had no idea that it would eventually consume my life. And yet here it is, the end of June, and I conservatively estimate that I have spent over 1,000 hours editing the Guide, proofreading the Guide, reading submissions for the Guide, and much else.

The first thing you learn about editing a fake disease guide (rather, co-editing; Mark Roberts is my co-editor--he also created this wonderful site for the Guide: http://www.lambsheadguide.com) is that you might as well consider yourself the editor of a real medical guide. It's just as much work, you're just as concerned about the veracity of the entries (although in a different sense), and the minute details of cross-referencing and copy editing for consistency are the same as well.

And yet, at the end of it all, I'm still not qualified to edit a real medical guide. In looking back over the years spent working on the Guide--literally, years--I cannot help but wonder if it's become a form of madness. (Take for instance the frenzy involved in getting one disease translated into Spanish so we could provide an excerpt, in the original layout, of a supposed Spanish version of a related book edited by Borges. Is this sanity? Probably not.)

The tendency of many people may be to dismiss the Guide as a gimmick, and yet Mark and I have been careful to reject those submissions that seemed gimmicky. In a sense, some of those potential contributors who did not take the humorous aspect seriously found themselves left out in the cold. We don't have a series of "civilization is a disease" or "death is a disease" jokes in this book. We have some entries that make fun of medical jargon, or of doctors, or of hospitals. But we don't have entries that function as jokes first and disease entries second. The result has been a much richer blend of material than anyone expected at the beginning of the project. Of course, with this richness has come a complexity that demands attention to detail. Thus the apparatus of forewords, introductions, examples from prior editions of the guide, an obscure history of the 20th century from the viewpoint of the guide--all of this grows up around the entries, like some oddly beneficial application of barnacles to a ship's hull. Before you know it, it all looks very natural and organic indeed.

The interesting thing about the Guide—the idea of it and the sampler that we’ve already published in advance of the Guide itself—is how therapeutic it seems to be. People who are ill have found the humor in it to be very life-affirming for them. Doctors have found it to be stress-relieving—in fact, a couple of medical schools may add the book to their curriculum for stress-relief courses. (I think it was Angela Carter, the brilliant English novelist and short story writer, who said that one way to cheat death was to laugh at it, to belittle it. She said this while she was dying of lung cancer.) We’ve also been sensitive to the fact that, on one level, there’s nothing funny about disease. Several of the entries in the Guide are very serious.

I'm thinking about the Guide because I'm living it right now, but also because the preproduction phase will end soon. If not by July 1st, then shortly thereafter. My engagement with the Guide will become different than it has been. The words themselves have been forever ruined by the repeated reading, re-reading, and re-reading again--the sheer repetition of the reading has transformed the words in the entries into another language. Or made the combinations of words unintelligible to me. You could read one of the entries and it would sound like the numbers from the New York Stock Exchange read back in Arabic.

This is one of the most disappointing aspects of editing an anthology: you don't get to enjoy it. However, because the Guide is so visual--because the designer John Coulthart has incorporated an illustration for each disease, among other things--I get a second chance. I will be able to enjoy the book on a visual level even though I can never read it again.

When I hold it in my hands and open it, I will simultaneously think to myself, "You are mad" and "You have helped to create something totally unique."

Jeff

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