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

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

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by Ken Wells

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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


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. Read about:

• one man's attempt to translate the Bible into Klingon

• sheep orthodontics, pet-freezing, and toad-smoking

• being hip in Cairo, modeling at auto shows, piano-throwing

• the fate of mail destined for the World Trade Center after 9/11

• the plight of oiled otters in Prince William Sound

...and much, much more. Edited by 20-year Journal veteran Ken Wells, and with a foreword by Liar's Poker author Michael Lewis, Floating Off the Page is the perfect elixir for fans of innovative prose in all its forms and function.

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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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.

Meet the Author

Michael Lewis, the bestselling author of The Undoing Project, Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short, among other works, lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and three children.

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Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's Middle Column 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fabulous. A great read. Great Keillor.