I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mr. Isiminger, my senior-year high-school English teacher.
He was the first grownup to laugh a big, genuine, between-us-guys guffaw at something I submitted in an essay assignment -- he even read it aloud in class -- encouraging me to begin to believe that, with effort and practice, I might grow up to be an entertaining writer. (This nascent self-confidence was soon so thoroughly smashed by the English Department of Kenyon College that it took me a decade, and the sweet anonymity of Usenet, to regain the stones to try to crack wise in print.) Let's put it this way: Mr. Isiminger was the first adult in a position of authority who treated me as an intellectual equal. Very liberating, that.
I have him to thank for another gift as well. One afternoon, after I'd finished a test early and was idly looking out a window, he sidled over to my seat. Quietly he slid a paperback onto my desk: Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. "You'll like it," he whispered.
Some years later, thoroughly in thrall to Pynchon's labyrinthine, stoned-oneiric epic Gravity's Rainbow, I checked out a book of lit-crit from the Brooklyn Public Library, a book I've never been able to find again. In the Preface, to illustrate the kind of obsessiveness the book can cause in people, the author presented the story of a graduate student who painstakingly counted every character in the novel. Then he divided the total in two, counted back, and discovered that at the exact center of the book... is the word center.
And they found him the next morning, rocking slowly back and forth in the Student Union.... His hair had turned snowy white -- and he NEVER SPOKE AGAIN...
Well, no, it didn't end that way, but that was the clear implication. Wow, that Mad Artificer, Ruggles of Red Cap, he planted this omphalos directly at the heart of his Great Mandala, the whole point of which, the whole unifying principle, is what he calls "Holy-Center-Approaching" -- "a gradual knotting into."
Well, I could have saved that poor apocryphal grad student a whole lot of work. Let's take out our Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, with the V-2 blueprints on the cover. This edition was shot from the pages of the original hardcover, and should be identical in every way to the first edition. (This won't work with that miserable eye-watering Bantam edition.) Note that there are 760 pages, beginning with the title page of Part One.
Those 760 pages divided by two gives 380. Meaning that page 380 is the middle of the book.
This edition's pages are 41 lines deep. The middle of page 380 -- the absolute middle of the book -- will be halfway through line 20.
Here's line 20:
silk lining, hears brakes go on, keeps running, hits the center mall in aAs Keanu Reeves' Neo pointed out, Woah.
The reason I'm onto Pynchon's little parlor trick -- and, really, that's all it is -- is that I spend a significant part of the Eighties as a Production Editor, estimating manuscripts for a parsimonious little oufit I affectionately remember as Satan & Shyster. You don't have to count every character in an MS to be able to predict with rather uncanny accuracy how many pages a finished book will use -- and therefore how much paper to order for the print run, which is a very important variable to a publisher; paper ain't cheap.
Authors are usually very active participants in the process of a book's publication. They read galleys -- essentially the whole manuscript in type, but not cut into pages -- and page proofs, which is after the galleys are cast off into pages. It would have been trivially easy for Pynch, while reading page proofs, to have done the math I just showed you, and insert the word center on the book's "center" line. Just ol' Tom sneaking up on you and whispering a quiet "Boo!" in your ear. Nothing to give a hapless grad student the heebie-jeebies, at any rate.
In preparing this little post, of course I had to put my nose into The Work -- a dangerous thing to do. I find myself being inexorably drawn in for what might be my seventh reading of this thing... I grazed in the first section, and boy it just gets richer and richer. Spellbinding.