* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the day off. This column first ran in February 2008.
I’ve attended a number of book-signings in my day, mostly in bookstores, but never one where the author passed out tasteless biscuits before talking, never one where almost half the audience couldn’t read and never will, and never one where the listeners frequently broke into audible panting.
I was in Menlo Park, near my daughter’s home, visiting a well-known independent bookstore named Kepler’s on a Saturday in January. The book being feted was “Howl.” Its editors, Cameron Woo and Claudia Kawczynska, were quick to assure us that they knew about Allen Ginsberg’s renowned book by the same name.
Their book is different.
The new “Howl” is subtitled “A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit”, which sounds as if dogs wrote it — wittily, no less. No such luck: these are essays written by humans, compiled by humans.
But dogs were invited to the reading and that got my attention. I was curious about the event and curious about me. Am I real dog lover yet? What does it take to be one?
I am new to dogs. Before August 2007, dogs did not exist for me, except as puzzling companions to some of my friends, sort of like husbands I didn’t care for. Then my daughter fell seriously ill with a neck injury and in a bold gesture towards recovery, she and her husband adopted Sutter.
Since then, I’ve visited dog parks, read newspaper articles, met the new Yolo County Court dog, Daisy, and spent hours with Sutter on my lap.
I tried to picture the atmosphere at Kepler’s if a bunch of dogs and their owners showed up. Chaos? I noticed that Powell’s Bookstore near Portland, also hosting a “Howl” reading, did not include an invitation to bring your dog. Are people less dog-crazy in Oregon — or more sane?
As I squeezed myself among 30 humans and 20 dogs crammed into Kepler’s, I didn’t feel I was with “my tribe.” I felt more like a witness to a subculture. Here are some things I observed about dog lovers.
1. Dog lovers love their own dogs, but they also love other dogs. People petted each other’s dogs, cooed over them and asked about their heritage. I love Sutter dearly, but the others are still walk-ons to me.
2. Dog loving becomes part of a person’s identity, sometimes too much. I took a photograph of a Paris Hilton wannabe. She wore black glasses, a white jacket, and a flamboyant scarf that looked like pink brussels sprouts knitted together. Her tiny black dog-in-a-purse was wrapped in a white blanket and wearing a sweater of the same hot pink.
When I asked if I could snap a photo, the middle-aged Paris Hilton cooed, “Oh, I hope you’re not from the media. In L.A. I was all over the TV stations.” Holding the dog close to her face, she said, “Just take pictures of Poopsie. Not of me.”
3. Dog lovers anthropomorphize their dogs. Woo and Kawczynska told us that the pieces in their book were all contemporary because older humorists tended to make fun of dogs.
“We don’t support laughing at the dog. That’s something we never, never do,” Kawczynska explained. Seriously.
4. Dog lovers have big hearts. This is the part I’d like to emulate.
Kawczynska told us about an article in “Bark Magazine,” which she and her co-editor founded 10 years ago, that drew attention to the plight of black dogs. Apparently, black dogs are less frequently adopted than others, possibly because they don’t show well in photographs. She told us that after the article ran, many people adopted black dogs and sent photos to the magazine. Kawczynska was touched (she mentioned tears).
I was also impressed to learn that proceeds from “Howl” will go to charities involved in the post-Katrina rescue of animals.
Of course, the heart of a book reading is the book itself. That’s why I go, to hear the author read and to decide whether I want to buy the book. Am I ready for dog literature? (My husband reads fish literature.)
For authors or editors, the whole point of a reading is to sell books, so when Woo and Kawczynska settled in to read, I figured they’d pick the best stuff. I expected big chuckles from this book of humor.
The first essay, “Two Pooch or Not to Pooch,” was about acquiring a second dog. Not a single giggle rose to my lips. Since I haven’t owned one dog yet, perhaps this was too far from my experience.
The second essay, “How to Tell the Difference between Your Mother and Your Dog,” seemed more promising. As a mom, I was ready for that warm laugh of recognition. I wouldn’t have minded a little teasing.
But the essay fell as flat as cheap dog biscuit. I know I’m picky about writing, but I hadn’t expected to feel insulted. The audience was quiet.
I howled, but not with laughter.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org