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JOSEPH N. BELL

The Way People Scan Newspapers Often Gives a Good Read of the Soul

November 30, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

All of us have devised--consciously or unconsciously--our own methods of deciding whether or not we are likely to be compatible with people we have recently met. It's hard for me to get a quick fix because I usually withhold judgment until I can find out how they go about reading the newspaper.

That's the first impression I trust the most--although I must admit there have been some significant exceptions. Here's how it works (to avoid sounding stuffy, I'm going to use the pejorative he , although what follows applies to both men and women).

If he doesn't read a newspaper at all, the possibility of any sort of close friendship is hopeless. That means he either gets his current information from TV or not at all--which amounts to almost the same thing. People who don't read newspapers claim either that they are too busy, the newspapers are too biased, or they have enough troubles of their own without adding to them from the pages of a newspaper. The first argument represents indefensible priorities, the second a conspiratorial view of the world, and the third a fear of life that tends also to be joyless.

So it isn't just an information gap that makes me incompatible with these people. It's mostly a feeling of breadth that somehow seems to be missing with non-newspaper readers. When you open up a newspaper in the morning, you are also opening doors in your mind to assimilate a variety of impressions, some pleasing, some decidedly unpleasant--which is the way life operates. I'm generally out of sync with people who can't--or don't--do that.

It isn't just whether a person reads a newspaper but how he reads it that tells me if we are likely to hit it off. I have a very specific order for reading my newspaper. I start with sports, then--in order--follow with the comics, national and international news, local news, Calendar, View and Business. (Of course, on Thursday and Saturday, I look first at Orange County Life to make sure this column has survived all the editorial and graphic processes intact.)

I tend to be most compatible with people who follow that same order in newspaper reading. I freely admit to spending an uncommon amount of time on the sports section, which attracts almost as much caustic comment as my refusal to have anything to do with word processors.

The sports section is viewed by pseudo-intellectuals as frivolous and therefore not worthy of significant time. (The same attitude is laid on the features and columns in View.) I won't argue the relative importance--in a cosmic sense--of sports; on the contrary, I regard that as its greatest strength. Attaching importance, really caring, about something so clearly unimportant provides me balance and perspective--and is thus well worth the time I spend on it. The sports writers who cried out in great social indignation for the cancellation of the World Series after the San Francisco earthquake didn't understand that. They wanted to tell the world they had their priorities straight when they didn't at all.

The same thing applies in a more limited sense to the comics. The difference is that comic strips tend to be much more sophisticated than sports. Some of our best social commentary is found in what we used to call the "funnies." True, it gets a little overwrought at times. When "Doonesbury" uses the sledgehammer rather than the scalpel approach, it is much less effective, and Berkeley Breathed hasn't yet found a new voice in "Outland." But "Crock" and "B.C." and "Shoe" and "The Wizard of Id" and "Tumbleweeds" (why did the Times drop this funny strip?) tell us more about the human condition than all the self-help books in print.

I'm suspicious of people who don't read the comics--and to some extent those who read the wrong comics. It's OK to read "Mary Worth," "Apt. 3-G" and "Rex Morgan, M.D." as long as you don't read them exclusively. And I simply flat-out would have a hard time connecting with anyone who didn't read and enjoy the best strip of all: "Calvin and Hobbes."

In general, I anticipate problems with people who read the Business section first--problems that are multiplied considerably if that is the only section they read. The same thing applies in a much less degree to those who go directly to Calendar. I can usually find something in common with those who read the news sections--either national or local--first. But this gets them off to a heavy start and requires the antidote of sports or comics to be administered rather quickly.

I also have problems with headline scanners, the closest thing among newspaper readers to those who get their news exclusively from television. There clearly is not enough time in the day to read a newspaper cover-to-cover, but the greatest benefit a newspaper offers is detail, and subjects that interest us deserve to be read for that detail. It's very easy in conversation to detect headline scanners.

I study box scores on the sports page--especially during the baseball season. There is probably no more useless information to be found anywhere than knowing what Tim Teufel or Gary Pettis did at bat yesterday. Yet I find this knowledge helps me to deal with more equanimity with the Lou Sheldons and Charles Keatings of the world. And I find it possible to grow stronger bonds with people who draw similarly on useless information.

However, one small thing bothers me about all this. Neither my wife nor most of my closest friends qualify very well under the above strictures. That's especially puzzling because on the whole they are a reasonably intelligent lot. But I'm sure they'll come around. Meanwhile, I don't have to fight anyone for the sports section.

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