Flows, Ripples, and Tumbles

I usually leaf through an anthology in search of engaging titles or passages. Reading an anthology in chronological order is oppressive. I do not enjoy plodding through page after page of dullness in the hope of eventually rewarding my patience with a compelling line. Nevertheless, from the exercise of arranging my portfolio for my writing workshop, I have discovered that the order of works in an anthology is, on most occasions, not arbitrary. A thoughtful arrangement can flow, suggesting connections between the anthologized works and quietly reminding the reader of the anthology’s overarching theme. It can also ripple and tumble to provoke the reader with incongruous and surprising parallels.

Of course, I did not read A Mencken Chrestomathy in chronological order. The book is divided into sections, each containing articles on subjects ranging from high culture and politics to everyday drudgery. Sections with important titles such as Odd Fish, Quackery, and Buffooneries meant that I had to explore them first. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the order in which the sections appear. The cover claims that this book represents H.L. Mencken’s “own selection of his choicest writings.” A flamboyant writer and editor like Mencken would definitely have a less-than-ordinary perspective of his own works. No one would know for certain why he chose to arrange his works the way it appears in the book, but it is certainly fascinating and instructive to take a guess.

photo
H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy. Left, First Edition (New York: Knopf, 1949); Right (New York: Vintage Books, 1982). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by H. Wong.

In my attempt to make sense of Mencken’s arrangement, I have grouped the sections into eight categories:

Manners: Homo Sapiens ǀ Types of Men ǀ Women

Values: Religion ǀ Morals ǀ Crime and Punishment ǀ Death

The State: Government ǀ Democracy ǀ Americans ǀ The South ǀ History

Personalities: Statesmen ǀ American Immortals ǀ Odd Fish

Knowledge: Economics ǀ Pedagogy ǀ Psychology ǀ Science ǀ Quackery ǀ The Human Body

Reflection: Utopian Flights ǀ Souvenirs of a Journalist ǀ Criticism

The Arts: Literature ǀ Literati ǀ Music ǀ The Lesser Arts

Wisdom: Buffooneries ǀ Sententiæ ǀ Appendix

I believe Manners Values, Knowledge Reflection, and The Arts Wisdom are associative pairings whereas ValuesThe StatePersonalitiesKnowledge is a discordant, challenging sequence. Reading the book chronologically, the reader 1) begins with a logical flow of thought, 2) encounters novelty and turbulence, and 3) ends with a sensible takeaway. Interestingly, this evokes the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution of the narrative arc. Mencken’s arrangement – much like his provocative writing – flows, ripples, and tumbles.

If I had diligently read the book in the correct order (or at least leaf through it chronologically), chances are I would have learnt to call a specialist in the machination of supply and demand an odd fish.

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