The Page 99 Test, tested

An Irishman’s Diary about a time-saving device for busy readers

‘ By his own account, Ford Madox Ford  developed a time-saving strategy for deciding whether a book was any good. This involved going straight to page 99, whereon, he once said, “the quality of the whole will be revealed”.’  Photograph:  EO Hoppe/Getty Images

‘ By his own account, Ford Madox Ford developed a time-saving strategy for deciding whether a book was any good. This involved going straight to page 99, whereon, he once said, “the quality of the whole will be revealed”.’ Photograph: EO Hoppe/Getty Images

Thu, Dec 19, 2013, 01:00

The English writer Ford Madox Ford, who was born 140 years ago this week, used to have to read a lot – not because he was a writer, necessarily, but because he was also a literary editor. So by his own account, he developed a time-saving strategy for deciding whether a book was any good.

This involved going straight to page 99, whereon, he once said, “the quality of the whole will be revealed”. It wasn’t that he attributed any mystical qualities to that number. In fact, in some versions of the quotation, it was page 90 he preferred.

But his general point was that, thus far into a book, the author should have established his characters and be revealing the substance of the work. Conversely, a bad or lazy writer would probably have dropped his guard by then, exposing the incompetence he might have hidden earlier.

I don’t know how seriously Ford took the test. But in honour of his anniversary, I tried it on my own bookshelves this week, with mixed results.

It certainly wouldn’t help, I found, with War and Peace, a book I have now tried twice to conquer, unsuccessfully. Page 99 of my copy is composed entirely of a letter: from the pious Princess Marya to one of her friends. And this definitely wouldn’t recommend the book. Yet it’s hardly representative either.

Having reached page seven hundred and something before abandoning my latest attempt on Tolstoy’s epic, I can’t blame Princess Marya, dull as she is. It’s the sheer size of the tome that defeated me, although as with Napoleon, heavy weather was also a factor.

Nor did the Page 99 test reveal much about another opus I have so far failed to master, The Da Vinci Code. It’s not my copy (I swear). I found it in a cafe with a sticker saying “take me home” (you’re supposed to read it and then leave it somewhere else, while logging your experience on a website called bookcrossing.com).

My first attempt on the blockbuster had not made it past Chapter 1. So at least Page 99 was new ground. But the events described there (somebody called Sophie tells Robert Langdon that there’s a GPS device in his pocket while also hinting, via her “olive gaze”, that she may be his love interest) didn’t colour my view of the book one way or the other.

Meanwhile, despite the publisher’s warnings about the risks involved in reading even small excerpts, I found myself perfectly capable of putting it down again.

A problem with the Ford test is that on the longest books, where it’s most needed, page 99 is least likely to be typical. Whereas with shorter works, the sample will be more definitive but less useful. Take Hemingway’s novella, The Old Man and the Sea, which rather poetically ends on the page where Ford’s reading would have started.

But speaking of Hemingway, the most telling page 99 I’ve found so far is one from another of his books, the memoir of 1920s Paris, A Moveable Feast. It occurs during the chapter entitled “The Man Who Was Marked for Death”, and features Hemingway being typically cruel but entertaining: in this case about an Irish poet, Ernest Walsh.

Walsh also edited a literary magazine, then rumoured to be sponsoring a new, very lucrative prize for authors. Over lunch with Hemingway, he hints that the American will win. Later, we learn that he also promised it to James Joyce and Ezra Pound.

But Hemingway affects to know already that Walsh is a “conman”. And although he also knows that his dying-poet act is no act (Walsh had TB and would indeed be short-lived), this doesn’t stop Hemingway being savagely cynical: noting gratefully, for example, that during their lunch, Walsh “did not bother to have to cough”.

By the end of page 99, he has confronted the poet, one Ernest to another, and notes that in return, Walsh “gave me complete, sad Irish understanding and the charm” (although he later bad-mouthed him to Joyce anyway).

It would have been ironic if Hemingway had presented his pen-picture of Ford on page 99 of the memoir. But in fact, he has already dealt with him by then, and with similar lack of sympathy: portraying the ageing writer as having bad breath, irritable manners, and the memory of a goldfish.

As almost everywhere in Hemingway, alcohol is central to their encounter. Here, it’s brandy (it’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape on page 99) and the author uses it as a prop to express his general dislike of Ford. Resigned to letting the Englishman join him at a cafe table, Hemingway writes: “I took a drink to see if his coming had fouled it, but it still tasted good.”

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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