Books — Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

By Amy Diaz

The ABCs of a life


Words, wit work well in Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia


Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Crown Publishers, 2005, 220 pages.

Try as we might to be summarized by our good points, our talents or our general sense of cleanliness, it will always be the little things that define us.

An example? Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s strongest memory about one of her former colleagues is the time he took a half-eaten tuna sandwich out of her trashcan at work and ate it. She doesn’t say what else he did with his life, if he had children or worked on a cure for cancer, because “this unfortunate recycled-tuna episode was fossilized in my brain like a leaf in stone.”

Just as this one incident sums up one acquaintance for Rosenthal, it’s a collection of small moments — childhood memories, a timeline of crappy life events, a listing of familial quirks and common greetings between co-workers — that defines Rosenthal for us. Her book is not a story of her life but a list of it, an encyclopedia, as the title says, of a life exactly like the one most people live.

To explain to some distant future reader the world in which this ordinary person lived, Rosenthal starts out with lists of things in our collective lives — lists of the highest-rated television shows, ways we exercise and names we call other drivers when we are angry. Then we begin the alphabetized list of things that make up Rosenthal’s life, from A to Z, from “Amy” (which she, like me, had as a child wanted to spell “Aimee”) to “you” (because “you” are the one reading about her life and because there are no things in her book that begin with “Z”).

Each item reveals Rosenthal to the reader the way a long friendship, begun at work or during some college class, slowly unfolds. You learn their lives not in a chronological way but in bits and pieces handed out over time as a French fry or a needlepoint shows some new facet of their personality, spurs the telling of some new story from their past. The result is that at the end of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life you have the impulse to call up your new friend and meet for coffee. A part of the 30-something-hipster-writes-a-book-based-on-their-columns trend, Encyclopedia is quite possibly the best example of this genre in years.

- Amy Diaz

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH