The daily surprise package

A CLASSROOM exercise I recall from childhood is one in which we compiled columns of opposites such as tall-short and mountain-valley, its purpose possibly being to prepare us for encounters later with liberal and conservative, asthenic and pyknic, and Los Angeles and San Francisco. I was reminded of that old exercise some time ago when I came across the advice of a management consultant whose attitude toward reading the daily newspaper is diametrically opposed to mine. In an article entitled ``Mastering Your Professional Reading,'' which appeared in the January-February 1986 issue of Business Horizons, the bimonthly magazine of Indiana University's Graduate School of Business, Jeffrey P. Davidson advises business professionals that as a first step they should consider what type of information they can ``readily discard or ignore.''

Mentioning the daily paper and general-interest periodicals as publications ``that, in plain English, take up more time than they're worth,'' he suggests a 30-day test in which business persons make do with briefly skimming the paper or reading only the Sunday edition or a weekly newsmagazine. ``Listen to more radio and TV reports while undertaking some other activity such as driving or eating,'' says Davidson. ``A strange phenomenon occurs once you give up cover-to-cover reading of the daily paper. You don't miss it!''

Davidson's pronouncement in those last four words pounces like an advertising pitch, complete with faith in the exclamation point and brimming with confidence that the message it concludes is going to sell.

But it's a message that I for one can't buy. I don't need Davidson's 30-day test as proof of what I already know -- that I would indeed miss reading the daily paper ``cover to cover.''

In my daily routine, the paper is a principal provider of pleasure. I look to it seven days a week as a source not only of news and information, but also of entertainment. The overall pleasure I experience is rooted in the very nature of a newspaper. A newspaper suggests privacy and leisure in a quiet time of the day. As a respecter of persons, it nurtures independence, offers total freedom of choice.

Going through the daily paper is fun -- it's a game. Readers are free to approach the game in any way they like. Despite the power of the front page, they may prefer to begin their journey of words elsewhere -- in the business or sports pages, or with a favorite personal columnist, or among the recipes geared to the season or a coming holiday. Their preferences may guide them first to the back-page features, or to the editorials, the op-ed page, the news of celebrities. On one day they may hold initially to the front page; on the next they may choose to begin at the back and work their way forward; on another their inclination may be to skip about. Subscribers who like to stick with the same reading routine day after day find a newspaper ideally organized for their taste; those who get bored with habitual patterns can find it equally satisfying. What people read in the paper, when they read it, and in what sequence they read it are matters left entirely to individual choice, and every day it can be a new game, with ``rules'' of their own devising. The object of the game is always the pleasure of universal reading, invariably realized.

If newspaper readers have no interest in the advertisements, they have only to turn the page. If the ads are a prime reason that they subscribe, they can have all the time they want to analyze them.

Those who take the daily paper have the choice of alternately skimming, skipping, and reading for comprehension -- as well as rereading. They can clip any stories, editorials, cartoons, and ads that they want to save. They can underline at will, scribble in the margins, set the paper aside to look up a strange word in the dictionary, then return to their reading later -- while standing in the aisle of a bus, or sitting in a restaurant, waiting in an airport, or reclining on a beach. At an outdoor concert this summer, I was amused to see a woman reading her paper while the orchestra was playing Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

I vividly recall the period a decade ago when our household went without the daily paper for much longer than the 30 days that Jeffrey Davidson recommends as a test. What led to the suspension of our subscription was a prolonged illness in which I found myself unable to maintain my daily reading. It didn't take long for the waiting papers to pile up to a point not many inches below the ceiling. So we simply had to take a break until I could catch up. I sorely missed the rolled-up ``surprise package'' that for more than 20 years had been tossed onto our front lawn every morning.

After awhile I found myself thinking about those familiar cartoon characters who are marooned alone on tiny islands that passing ships never notice.

I'll concede that paging through the paper every day is a significant consumer of time, and I hold membership in the great majority that is not looking for ways to fill the hours. But in reviewing a list of obligations and enjoyments for the purpose of considering where cuts might be made, I would pass over the newspaper-reading entry without so much as a feather's touch of hesitation, knowing what I do about the private pleasure to be discovered daily in those beckoning columns of type telling the billowing story of the world around us.

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