Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's Middle Column


On any given day, millions of Wall Street Journal readers put aside the serious business and economic news of the day to focus first on the paper's middle column (a.k.a. the A-hed), a virtual sound-bubble for light literary fare -- a short story, a tall tale, an old yarn, a series of vignettes, and other unexpected delights that seem to "float off the page." In this first-ever compendium of middle-column pieces, you'll find an eclectic selection of writings, from the outlandish ...
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On any given day, millions of Wall Street Journal readers put aside the serious business and economic news of the day to focus first on the paper's middle column (a.k.a. the A-hed), a virtual sound-bubble for light literary fare -- a short story, a tall tale, an old yarn, a series of vignettes, and other unexpected delights that seem to "float off the page." In this first-ever compendium of middle-column pieces, you'll find an eclectic selection of writings, from the outlandish to the oddly enlightening.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Wells, a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal, has put together a terrific collection of the most memorable stories from the off-beat front-page column that covers singular topics like toad-licking and the Miss Agriculture pageant, and leads with irresistible opening lines like "First, pretend that you are a sheep." Wells, who is also a novelist (Meely LaBauve), includes stories of unconventional inventions such as braces for sheep teeth, a low-flatulence bean and underwear for the incarcerated. There are profiles of the unglamorous and overlooked, such as a professional fish-sniffer and the world's most prolific, and unknown, novelist. Readers receive an education in Greek banana policy, the national sewer-fat crisis and what it's like to be a Serbian sniper. Stories also involve reporters trying on new careers, from belly-dancing to auto-show modeling. Although there is a heavy emphasis on humor here, readers can still expect to find a smattering of serious subjects, like rescuing otters after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 or the fate of the mail destined for the World Trade Center after 9/11. For regular WSJ readers, who have loved the middle column, this collection, with pieces largely from the 1970s forward (the column dates back 50 years), is a must. Those who think WSJ stories are only for the business-minded are in for an unexpected treat. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When most people think of the Wall Street Journal, words like quirky and whimsical don't spring readily to mind. That's because most people don't spend enough time reading the "middle column" of the paper, that part of the front page devoted each day to an offbeat feature story. Veteran Journal staffer Wells has collected 67 of those stories, with topics ranging from silly (people who strive to use only one-syllable words) to heart-rending (the fate of oiled otters in Prince William Sound) to enlightening (an afternoon with Serbian snipers) to downright disgusting (coagulated fat in sewers). Wells has arranged the stories in nine broad categories, rather than chronologically; the reader must flip to the end of each piece to see both the date and the author. He also rejected the original headlines in favor of breezy and occasionally anachronistic titles like "Y2K Alert! (But It's 1980)." Not every piece is brilliant, or even captivating, but the collection features enough top-notch writing to make it a worthwhile purchase for journalism collections. Susan M. Colowick, North Olympic Lib. Syst., Port Angeles, WA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The column from which this collection derives debuted in December, 1941, and from its 6-decade history Wells has selected 67 engaging examples of journalistic creativity and caprice. Each entry of approximately 1500 words is signed and dated, and tackles an offbeat topic of the staff writer's choice, designed to leaven the daily news offerings and to entertain by wresting readers' eyes from serious matters. For example, one may read about cutting-edge technology in sheep orthodontics, record-breaking distances in piano flinging by trebuchet, and fantasy styling excesses at hair fashion shows. This is a book to be valued equally for the composition lessons inherent in its polished prose and for its appeal to readers.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
Michael Lewis author of Liar's Poker and The New New Thing For more than five decades, the middle column of The Wall Street Journal has been the antidote to boredom...[The writers] find a subject that is merely delightful to write about — a man who has built a medieval catapult to throw grand pianos across his sheep pasture, for example — and try to persuade you of its significance. Or not...The quality of the Journal's prose is always highest in its middle column because the people making it are having fun.

Andy Borowitz humorist, New Yorker and New York Times contributor Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it's rarely so funny and absorbing as these classic middle columns from The Wall Street Journal. For A-hed addicts everywhere, this book is an unalloyed treat.

Editor and Publisher Magazine "The Wall Street Journal doesn't usually seem synonymous with humor" but this book "proves it too has a funny bone."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743226639
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 5/7/2002
  • Series: Wall Street Journal Book Series
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.68 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Lewis is the author of Boomerang, The Big Short, Panic!, Liar’s Poker, The New New Thing, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Home Game, among other works. He lives in Berkeley, California.
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Read an Excerpt

Floating Off the Page

The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's "Middle Column"
By Ken Wells

Free Press

Copyright © 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-2664-X

Chapter One


1. Phone Hex

It was a first date, and Lee Cruz was necking in the car. In midtussle, she jostled the cell phone in her purse and, without realizing it, she triggered speed-dial No. 2, which rang up her ex-boyfriend.

He answered and listened in. For 22 minutes.

One thing she says struck her eavesdropping ex as especially memorable: "No, no," she told the new beau. "You're a married man."

Introducing yet another unforeseen hazard of the Information Age - the SEND or TALK button on your wireless phone. On many portable phones, hitting SEND will automatically redial the last number you called or someone on your speed-dial list. So it takes just the tiniest slip of the finger to broadcast the audio track of your life to someone you know who wasn't supposed to hear it.

"He didn't have to sit there and listen to it," moans Ms. Cruz.

But they almost always do sit there and listen.

"Of course I want to hear this," says Andrea Carla Michaels, owner of Acme Naming, a San Francisco product- and company-naming firm.

A few years back, Ms. Michaels was treated to a half-hour answering-machinerecording of her boyfriend at the time, Matt Palmer. Mr. Palmer, who had inadvertently pressed SEND on his cell, was discussing women with four male friends after a night of drinking at the Comet Club.

She could have erased the tape once she realized what was going on. But why on earth would she do that?

Ms. Michaels was 37 years old; Mr. Palmer was 27. Would Mr. Palmer's friends make fun of the age gap? "I'm much more in the camp of wanting to know the worst than not wanting to know something," she says. "There's nothing I don't want to know."

In the end, Ms. Michaels herself was unmentioned in the taped conversation. But the next day she called Mr. Palmer and played back a few choice bits.

Mr. Palmer, who now runs MP8 International, an Internet telephony sales and marketing firm in Ketchum, Idaho, considers himself lucky. "It could have been a lot more incriminating than it was," he says.

Few cell-phone nightmare scenarios come close to what Wendy Harrington inflicted on herself last summer. She had been fending off a particularly persistent suitor for weeks, but when he invited her for an island weekend, she accepted, on the condition that her roommate come along, too.

En route on the ferry, Ms. Harrington called her host from her cell phone and left a message giving him her arrival time. Then, as her phone sat in her purse, she apparently hit the SEND button just as her roommate was prodding her to explain why she wasn't attracted to the guy. Ms. Harrington mentioned a few positives. But the 20-minute deconstruction soon turned brutally frank, touching on his habit of practicing his golf swing without a club and the two women's general disinclination to like men who wear cologne and say "shucks." Pouring on the salt, they discussed intimate details of Ms. Harrington's previous relationship with someone she describes as the "kinky doctor."

"I could not imagine a more emasculating conversation," she says. Only as they prepared to step ashore did she realize her phone had been engaged to her host's voice mail all the while.

"I hit END, feel a wave of dread - the kind that seems really bad at first and then just keeps getting worse," she recalls, speaking on condition that her suitor, the island and her hometown not be named. "My stomach is now churning with the knowledge that I might really hurt this nice man who has shown me nothing but adoration."

The poor fellow met the two women near the dock, and his uncomplicated smile suggested that he had yet to listen to the message. The three then headed for a restaurant, and he checked his voice mail. "Wendy, it sounds like you called me from the boat," she remembers his saying. "It sounds like you're having a great time."

She dreaded the denouement, but he stayed on the phone only briefly and said he would get back to the message later.

That set the tone for the rest of the weekend. He received several other phone messages, always skipping over hers to listen to the new ones. They went waterskiing. They ate in restaurants. "The whole weekend his phone is terrifying me," she says.

Finally Sunday arrived, and the women left for home. It was only then, apparently, that her message got through to her gracious host. "We never talked again," Ms. Harrington says. One lesson she learned from the harrowing experience: Lock the keypad on your phone when you put it down.

But the more that wireless phones proliferate, the greater the chances of embarrassing faux pas. Not long ago, Ed Salvato, senior editor of PlanetOut.com Travel, a gay Internet travel site based in West Hollywood, Calif., and some friends were in a car having a very graphic conversation about the sexual adventures some men they knew had at a desert resort.

A half-hour later, Mr. Salvato's mother phoned him. That wouldn't be unusual, except that Mr. Salvato's cell phone was new, and, while he had his parents' number programmed into speed dial, they didn't have his number. They did, however, have a new Caller ID device, and the two technologies colluded against Mr. Salvato. He had unwittingly dialed his parents, who overheard smatterings of the conversation and, after disconnecting, called back the number on Caller ID.

"Did you hear what we said?" Mr. Salvato asked his mother, alarmed. She just claimed to have overheard some "joshing."

"She had 'mother's ears' on," he says with relief.

Some telephonic mishaps aren't about sex. Robbie Herzig was deep into a job interview in Denver when a friend called. Ms. Herzig thought she was sending the call to voice mail, but instead accidentally answered it. The friend overheard her detailed pitch for more stock options and a bigger salary.

Ms. Herzig got the job, and now does strategic planning at ClientLogic, which provides marketing and other services for e-commerce companies. But she has never told her boss about the cell-phone incident.

"I work for a technology company," she explains. "You don't want to admit that you can't work technology."



Excerpted from Floating Off the Page by Ken Wells Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword xiii
Introduction 1
Chapter 1 The Way We Are Now
1 Phone Hex 7
2 "Nothing Personal. We Sue All Our Friends." 10
3 Men Will Be Boys ... 14
4 ... And Some Boys Will Stay That Way 18
5 Not Your Mother's Cemetery 22
6 Why the Girl Scouts Sing the Blues 26
7 Pity the Toad 30
8 Ruff! Ruff! Ruffage! Here, Rover, Have a Nice Bean Sprout! 34
9 Bambi Deconstructed 37
10 The Deeper Meaning of Mail 42
11 Luck Among the Ruins 47
Chapter 2 Style
12 The Art of the Perfectly Awful 53
13 Roasted Porcupine and Basil, With a Hint of Tire Mark 58
14 Domes of Resistance 61
15 The Agonies of Miss Ag 64
16 And the Winner for Placing the Most Bras Is ... 69
17 Men in Brown 72
18 Poetic Justice 76
19 Hair Wars 78
20 Rise Up, Ye Sleeveless Men! 82
21 Men Are from Hardware Stores, Women Are From ... 86
Chapter 3 Things You Might Not Know
22 The Fat Man Cometh 91
23 Prisons, Guns and Knickers 97
24 But Will the Klingons Understand Deuteronomy? 100
25 The Steak Tender, the Soup Positively Rodentine 104
26 The Sky, Sometimes, Is Actually Falling 108
27 The Offal Truth 112
28 Carrots, No Schtick 115
29 Your Orthodontist and Ewe 119
Chapter 4 Men at Work
30 The Waning Days of Mr. Coke 123
31 Fishing with His Nose 128
32 Blowing Up on the Job 132
33 "Bear Hunting Is Hard on Wives" 136
34 Charles Atlas, Grandpa 140
35 One Writer's Novel Problem 144
Chapter 5 Obsessions
36 The Longest Replay 149
37 The Bean of His Existence 153
38 Y2K Alert! (But It's 1980) 157
39 Claim That Tune! 162
40 This Cup Must Not Be Runneth Over 167
Chapter 6 What We Wrote Home About
41 A Navy and Its Demons (and Dragons) 171
42 A Fence Without End 175
43 The Last Word 179
44 Touring God's Country 183
45 Smoke Got in Their Eyes 185
46 Yes, We Have No Bananas 188
47 Of Counterculture, Counter Cultures and Pig Rights 193
48 A Night Among the Snipers 197
49 Things Are Hopping in New York 201
50 The Struggles of Otter 76 203
Chapter 7 Play's the Thing
51 Fish Story 211
52 Golfing in the Spring: One Hole, Par 70 215
53 Having a Fling or Two 219
54 Why Tiger Is Glad He's Not Japanese 223
55 Not Your Father's Buick 226
Chapter 8 Notions and Controversies
56 Naked Assumptions 231
57 Little Feats 234
58 China, in Stride 237
59 No, This Isn't How They Invented Chicken Tenders 241
60 Why the Future Isn't Coming Up Roses 244
Chapter 9 Scribes, Describing
61 Traveling Cheap, but Not Sleazy 249
62 In Praise of Small Words 254
63 Z-less in Zanzibar 256
64 Being Hip in Cairo 259
65 Check Out That New Model--Uh, I Don't Mean the Car 263
66 Puzzlements 268
67 Play It Again, Ma'am 272
Acknowledgments 279
Index of Contributors 281
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"A-hed" — Named because it is shaped roughly like a capital A, it is The Wall Street Journal's internal designation for a one-column, three-line, 18-point Caslon Italic headline, with an indented one-column, three-line, 12-point Scotch Roman deck, framed in a box formed by a quarter-point rule, and anchored on each side by dingbats. Alternatively, the feature story that sits under that headline in the "middle column" of the Journal's front page. When executed properly, with solid reporting, wit and fine writing, it is so light and engaging that it seems to float off the page.

What, you may ask, are feuding nudists, dueling translators of the Bible into Klingon, and the makers of high-quality prison underwear doing on the front page of The Wall Street Journal?

They have shared the umbrella of the "A-hed" and become part of its lore.

When the first A-hed appeared on Page One of this newspaper on Dec. 17, 1941, the kernel of a great idea had clearly been planted. World War II had been under way for ten days and the nation, according to the short piece that didn't carry a byline, was caught with a peculiar shortage for those suddenly patriotic times — American flags.

For its time, that story amounted to a flight of sheer whimsy. The Journal back then was known exclusively for its single-minded coverage of business. That valuable piece of journalistic real estate known as the "middle column" was not yet fixed in its offerings; it had taken various styles of headlines and was given over to numerous matters core to the paper's purpose — commodities charts, stock trends, business briefs. But the paper, already more than a half-century old, was in the throes of major change, and that first A-hed was a glimpse of its broader future.

Of course, the Journal is still predominantly and preeminently a business publication, but regular readers of our pages know that the modern paper, here and globally, energetically covers politics, social issues, societal trends and, in its Friday Weekend section, travel, leisure, arts and even sports. And five days a week, on its front page, the Journal delivers up an A-hed whose chief purpose is analogous to an aperitif or fine dessert — it sweetens and pleases the palate of readers ready to tackle (or take a break from) stories about bonds, microchips and commodities futures. Not that an A-hed can't be serious; in its early days it usually was, and it still sparingly is — witness, herein, former Journal staffer Charlie McCoy's moving tale about the efforts to save an oil-smeared sea otter during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, or Joshua Harris Prager's story on the personal trials of former major-league baseball player Bill Buckner long after his game-turning error in the 1986 World Series.

The credit for inventing the A-hed concept surely goes to Bernard "Barney" Kilgore, father of the modern Wall Street Journal, and Bill Kerby, the Journal's first Page One editor. Mr. Kilgore, a mild-mannered Midwesterner, joined the paper right out of DePauw University and became its managing editor in 1941 at the age of 30. More clearly than anyone before, he saw the Journal's future as a truly national newspaper, one that would keep itself rooted in Wall Street but, on its front page, deliver the wider world in a voice that tempered the urgency of a metropolitan newspaper with the analysis and stylish writing of a good magazine. His famous declaration — "Don't write banking stories for bankers. Write for the banks' customers" — cut the Journal loose from its stiff, almost technical writing style. He created a rewrite and editing staff for Page One and put Mr. Kerby in charge of it. Whole new forms were invented — What's News, which delivered world, national and business news in punchy capsules; the Column 1 "leder," whose aim was and is to illuminate matters of social, cultural or political importance, or to demystify events in the news; and, not least, the A-hed.

Year after year, the middle column, according to Wall Street Journal readership surveys, continues to be among the paper's best-read features. It has been emulated by countless U.S. newspapers and some magazines; journalism professors across the nation routinely clip it and give it to students with the admonition: "If you wish to write well, learn to write like this." In 1971, a Fortune magazine feature on the Journal helped to cement the A-hed's place as an icon of contemporary journalism by describing it as a story often so engaging and light "as almost to float off the page" (hence the title of this book).

If Mr. Kilgore, who died in 1967, helped invent the A-hed, it's also true that the form was still very much a work in progress into the 1960s. On many days, the A-hed resembled that very first one — a short business story with a quirk. (One example: a piece on how World War II was very good for the greeting-card industry.) Alternatively, it was often a news feature. When the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States in September 1959, his travels and doings occupied the A-hed spot for five days running — an occurrence entwined with a bit of Barney Kilgore lore. Or, as Fred Taylor, a Journal managing editor who was aboard then, recalls: "The late, great Barney Kilgore was gadget happy and had just got one of the first car phones. So the reporters trailing Khrushchev used Barney's car, calling in their stories on the wonderful phone to the extent they ran down the car battery and got stuck somewhere in Iowa."

The success of the A-hed owes as much to the quality of ideas as it does to good writing, and the idea factory itself owes much to Journal culture. Page One has always been famously picky about A-hed ideas, yet famously egalitarian about who comes up with them. It is still very much a decentralized art. Any reporter at the paper can pitch and write an A-hed for Page One, as can (and have) news assistants and interns (with proper guidance and editing, of course). Once an idea is accepted, the paper gives the lucky scribe what most metro newspapers would consider a languid amount of time to report and write a story that is usually under 1,500 words in length. True, many A-heds are done in a day or two, but it isn't uncommon for A-heds to take a week to report and a week to write — even longer. Consider that when Journal staffer Carrie Dolan alighted in the San Francisco bureau as a fresh-faced college graduate in 1982, she soon found herself in conference with Ken Slocum, the taciturn Texan who was bureau chief at the time. A clever features man, Mr. Slocum had a Texan's bias against what he considered fancy, overpriced, big-city hotels. He inexplicably shoved a note across the desk to Ms. Dolan that mused that it was probably possible for a person to travel across country for the price of a single night in the more expensive hotels in the Journal's headquarters city of New York.

Carrie was starting to wonder what that had to do with her when Ken drawled: "So Carrie, you better get goin'" — and then broke into a chorus of the Willie Nelson song "On the Road Again."

And off she went, in an account that appears in this book, driving for a week coast-to-coast in a cheap rental car, trying to prove Mr. Slocum's theory in the A-hed column.

Ms. Dolan's story shows what comes of a quirky set piece, well executed. The A-hed's history is also filled with stories of opportunity — reporters in exotic, remote, even dangerous locations putting their well-honed features eyes to the ground around them and coming up with gems. Barry Newman, unquestionably the current dean of Journal A-hed writers, was banging about the Australian Outback in the spring of 1978 when he realized that the Aussies had built a barbed-wire fence longer than the Great Wall of China to separate sheep-eating dingoes (wild dogs) from the nation's wool crop. It was certainly an A-hed but there was a small hurdle: A New York editor, who could not envision the splendor of such a fence from so far away, cabled Mr. Newman to say that such a story probably wasn't worth spending more than $200 on. So Mr. Newman rented exactly $200 of air time from a local pilot with a small plane and got the color he needed from above.

Tony Horwitz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper in 1995 for his coverage of workplace issues, recalls covering the conflict in Serbia and realizing that there were probably A-heds even in that madness. So one night, at considerable risk, he crawled up a hill above Sarajevo and into a Serbian sniper's pit where he spent time with Serbian gunmen discussing Isaac Bashevis Singer stories while the Serbs sporadically sprayed sniper fire on Croats below. (Mr. Horwitz, now a full-time author on leave from The New Yorker, got his story; it was impossible to tell whether the Serbs got any of their targets.)

Adventure, pathos, humor, irony — this is the stuff of storytelling and the elixir of storytellers. If The Wall Street Journal were a house, the A-hed would surely be our front porch — a place where stories are spun out with a kind of spare exuberance, for an audience of clever listeners.

So pull up a chair and enjoy!


Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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