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The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
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Mar 14, 2011

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bookshelves: 100-nyt-books, journalism
Read in March, 2011

The cover of “The Imperfectionists,” by Tom Rachman, includes three one-word reviews: “spectacular,” “magnificent” and “beguiling.”

I found the novel neither spectacular nor magnificent, but I definitely agree with the Washington Post’s beguiling, as in charming or enchanting, sometimes in a deceptive way.

As this book describes the dying days of a newspaper, it hits a bit close to home. It’s no secret that print newspapers are struggling. The newspaper in Rachman’s story is in Rome so at least it is a charming locale.

Instead of a straightforward chronological story, each chapter is about someone connected to the newspaper and is titled with a headline. We meet hapless foreign correspondents, a cranky corrections editor, a news editor who would rather be a scientist and a clueless publisher.

I wasn’t crazy about the beginning, the Paris correspondent was a washed up has-been, perhaps like the print industry itself. The guy couldn’t even be bothered to upgrade to a new computer or a smart phone.

But the writing flows and soon the humanity springs forward. It takes a tragedy for the obituary writer to kick start his career. The business writer has no sense for business when it comes to her loafer boyfriend. The editor tries to rekindle an old romance after she realizes her husband has cheated on her, revealing that she is just another insecure woman.

Some of the characters are pathetic, some noble; they are all imperfect.

I got the biggest kick out of Herman Cohen, the corrections editor, who also handles letters to the editor. He is also the guru of style at the paper. The paper’s style guide, its Bible, has 18,238 entries — in other words, he’s created a rule for everything.

Cohen is scathing in his “Bible” entries. For example, this is what he writes about the word literally: “This word should be deleted. All too often, actions described as ‘literally’ did not happen at all. As in, ‘He literally jumped out of his skin.’ No, he did not. Though if he literally had, I’d suggest raising the element and proposing the piece for page one. Inserting ‘literally’ willy-nilly reinforces the notion that breathless nitwits lurk within this newsroom.” If you love language, you’ll laugh all the way through Herman’s chapter.

As the novel sweeps toward its inevitable conclusion — Cohen vetoed any possibility of a website, noting: “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music” — I felt a twinge of sadness.

What’s interesting about this book is that although it is about the print newspaper business, very little of the novel takes place in the newsroom. Mostly we follow the characters through their lives outside the paper.

That’s one of the ways in which this book is so interesting. Rachman reminds us that we may work next to someone every day for years and yet not really know them. That happens in more office environments than newsrooms. It’s also another reminder of our imperfections.

For a beguiling tale, it offers a lot to think about and a wry smile or two.

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