Harper’s Index

I’ve been a fan of Harper’s Index since it began, which was a long time ago though I have no idea when. Do you know it? It’s a regular feature in Harper’s—a seemingly random list of statistical information. But it’s far from random. The editors of the page cleverly arrange one-sentence long factoids; often the juxtaposition is absolutely startling. Or upsetting. Or ironic. Amusing. Usually political. There are no conclusions; that’s your assignment.  Read between the lines, connect the dots from A to B.

For a journalist or a writer of nonfiction, these are little gems. Yet possibilities also exist for the novelist. Where do ideas come from? The Index offers opportunity. And also: how can you structure your own writing so that the reader does some of the work, making inferences, drawing conclusions, making connections.

My husband is a statistician, so I approach the Index with suspicion, if not with more than the average amount of skepticism. Harper’s always has source information, however. But that’s not the point. The point is—here—to engage the mind and imagination. Then, the connections are where story comes in.

For example, this series: (November, 2012)

  •  Percentage of Canadians who believe in global warming: 98
  • Of Americans who do: 70
  • Of Republicans: 48
  • Percentage of Republicans who believe in demonic possession: 68

 Those three are possibly incendiary (ha, what a punster I am), but would be fascinating to explore. What are the possible inferences? What is the connection between people who believe in demonic possession and those who don’t believe in global warming? Clearly there’s a lot of overlap—why? Maybe not a story idea yet, but where can you take it? Do more Republicans have actual experience with demonic possession? A president, perhaps? (No offense to Republican readers.) After all, we all know that the supernatural is what’s selling (ugh).

 Or these (August, 2012):

  • Percentage of top 40 songs from the 1960s that were written in a major key: 85
  • From the 2000s that were: 43

 What thoughts pop up from this startling information? That we’ve gotten more sophisticated in our tastes? That we’ve gotten sadder as a nation? That music teachers are more anxious? That social media are influencing our tastes? Moreover, what story possibilities occur to you? Let me know. I’ve got a few ideas myself. Example: one teenage rock and roll star who makes it his or her business to ban anything written in a major key. Perhaps he has been taken over by demonic possession and wants ensure that the entire US population is on anti-depressants, making us easier to invade. What—me  worry?

Moving right along: these (August, 2012):

  • Number of private U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks in 2010: 15
  • Number killed by falling televisions: 16

 My warped sense of humor takes me right to a film script. Were the televisions dropped by the terrorists? Who dropped the last one? Are televisions becoming animated killers? Oh, I like that.

 Or these single entries (August, 2012):

  • Number of days a juvenile penguin eluded Japanese authorities after escaping from an aquarium in March: 82
  • Estimated market price paid by panhandlers in Johannesburg to rent a baby for the day: $3

With the single entries, there’s no need to follow the line from A to B, but each, as with a good newspaper headline, suggests multiple entry points. From whose point of view should the penguin tale be told? Picture book or novel? Who else is involved? Where is the penguin hiding? What does he learn to eat? Is he disguised as a child? Etc.

The panhandler piece raises similar questions, minus the picture book option. A darker tale.

My brain begins to spin. And while it’s hard to take someone else’s ideas for your own work, there’s nothing wrong with springboards to your own imagination.

The Index  is also searchable if you’re a subscriber, so you can have fun developing your own sequences. I just happened to search DOGS. Can’t imagine why.

Item. Surely there’s a story here:

  • Estimated number of American dogs that have been named as beneficiaries in wills: 1,000,000
  • Ratio of American children to American cats and dogs: 1:2

Less happily. Tragically, and a companion to Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful new book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:

  • Number of beagles used in radiation research that the Department of Energy will bury in a toxic-waste dump in 1991: 850
  • Gallons of radioactive beagle excrement that will be buried: 34,000

I just might write that novel myself.

 

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5 Comments

by | July 4, 2013 · 6:44 am

5 responses to “Harper’s Index

  1. Kelly Ramsdell Fineman

    The first series has me simultaneously amused, troubled and a bit horrified, but that continues to be my response to the GOP at all times

  2. We read Harper’s Index in the Funny Times. Never thought of it as a story sparker, though.

  3. Leda, I know a few people who were actually possessed by penguins. Penguin salt and pepper shakers, penguin pajamas, penguin sheets and duvet covers. I’ve also heard that the Heritage Foundation is sponsoring a study to see if penguins emit gases (cannot say how, it’s too embarrassing) that will REPLACE the ozone layer. 100% American penguins, of course. No foreign penguins. Dibs on that one for a picture book. And you’re right about Harper’s Index. One Christmas, my family and I agreed to bring one statistic each from it, to share. That’s the kind of thing we give each other instead of perfume and socks.

  4. Julie, I once heard a story about a friend who visited a European zoo decades ago. The penguins were, apparently, free to roam about. He saw a large family, all holding hands. At the end of the line was a penguin, flipper (is that what they’re called?) being held by a small child.

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