Judging books by the page

I confess I’m confused.

A good while back I read about the “page 69 test” — apparently descended to us from Marshall McLuhan. The idea is that you can open any book to page 69 and use that to determine whether you will like the book.

Well, OK. Page 69 of Dreaming in Code contains a description of Moore’s Law and concludes, “…there is no Moore’s Law for software. Chips may double in capacity every year or two; our brains don’t.” Whew. I think that’ll do the trick for at least some people.

Only next I read about a variation of this, called the “page 99 test,” and attributed to Ford Madox Ford: “0pen the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” So, let’s see: on page 99 of my book you can read a story about how hard it is for developers to keep up with the tools available to them. In a visit to OSAF, a programmer named Anthony Baxter described his search for ways to speed up the processing of audio data in a Python application. Baxter was the release manager for the most recent version of Python, yet even he had forgotten that the programming language comes with a utility that exactly suited his needs. “The batteries were indeed included, as Python devotees liked to say. But with so many batteries, who could keep track of them all?”

OK. Fine. I’m willing to let my work be judged on this, too!

But now here comes the page 123 test! This one seems less about helping you decide whether to read a book and more about “bibliomancy,” or the art of making oracular use of arbitrarily selected passages of books. The page 123 test dictates that one “grab the nearest book, open to page 123, go down to the 5th sentence and type up the 3 following sentences.”

For Dreaming, this turns out to be a passage about the Chandler Project’s search for a development manager:

As the hunt dragged on, Lou Montulli and Aleks Totic suggested a name from their Netscape days. Michael Toy had been one of a band of employees at Silicon Graphics who left with its founder, Jim Clark, when Clark decided to start a new venture that would turn into Netscape. He had led the company’s programming team through several hyperspeed cycles of the browser wars in an era that redefined the norms for software development, establishing new benchmarks for fast releases of new versions.

I think I know what the multiplication of these memes is getting at. At this rate, authors are going to have to expect to be judged by every page they write. The nerve of that!

Books aren’t typically fractal — you can’t pull out lots of individual parts and allow each to stand for the whole. But each passage ought to count. In the end, every page and every sentence of a book ought to be able to present a good face for the larger entity it belongs to — like a diplomat abroad.

Post Revisions:

There are no revisions for this post.

Get Scott’s weekly Wordyard email


  1. Anthony

    “Books aren’t typically fractal” — That’s a great line. I was trying to think of some books that could be considered fractal-like. Two that come to mind are: “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” and “The Little LISPer”.

  2. Scott Rosenberg

    Interesting! I’ll have to check those out.

    And of course there was Steven Levy’s recent experiment with his iPod book — shuffling up the chapters so that different readers would get different “mixes” of the book. That was not so successful, though, I thought…

Post a comment