Elements of style in the 21st century

It seems to me, observing the young in coffee shops, that something is missing from their lives: the fine art of holding a newspaper. They sit staring at computer screens, sometimes with wires coming out of their ears, life passing them by as they drift through MySpace, that encyclopedia of the pathetic, and check out a video of a dog dancing the Macarena. It is so lumpen, so sad, that nobody has shown them that opening up a newspaper is the key to looking classy and smart. Never mind the bronze-plated stuff about the role of the press in a democracy - a newspaper, kiddo, is about Style.

Whether you're sitting or standing, indoors or out, leaning against a hitching post or with your brogans on a desk, a newspaper gives you a whole rich vocabulary of gesture. You open it with a flourish and a ripple of newsprint, your buoyant self-confidence evident in the way you turn the pages with a snap of the wrist, taking in the gray matter swiftly, your eyes dancing over the world's sorrows and moving on, crinkling the page, snapping it, rolling it, folding the paper in halves and quarters, tucking it under the arm or tapping it against the palm. Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, all the greats, used the newspaper to demonstrate cool.


A man at a laptop is a man at a desk, a stiff, a drone. Where is the nobility here? He hunches forward, his eyes glaze, and beads of saliva glitter in the corners of his mouth and make their way down his chin as he becomes engrossed in the video of the fisherman falling out of the boat. A newspaper reader, by comparison, is a swordsman, a wrangler, a private eye. Holding a newspaper frees you up to express yourself, sort of like holding a sax did for Coltrane. Just observe a few simple rules.

1. If you want to make a serious impression, don't buy one paper, buy three or four. A person walking into Starbucks with four papers folded under his wing is immediately taken for a mogul. If he's young, he's a software mogul. If he is unshaven and wearing pajamas under his raincoat, he is an eccentric mogul, perhaps a Mafia kingpin.


2. Take your sweet time opening the paper. You already know what's in it, boss man, you only read it so you'll know how much other people know, so there's no big rush.

3. Once you open it, never look up unless someone speaks your name. Don't be distracted just because a leggy blonde has crossed the room, leaving a trail of cigarette smoke and Chanel No. 5. You're the actor, so let others be the audience; you be the scene.

4. Scan the front page, check out the headlines, but don't pore, don't be a drudge. Be cool. Jump to the sports page, then the comics, then the society page, then editorials. That's the beauty of the inverted pyramid news story. A glance is usually good enough.

5. Always rip out a story or two and tuck it in your pocket. Not casually, like it was a recipe for meatballs, but with urgency and purpose. This creates an indelible aura of mystery.

6. When you're done with a paper, clap it shut and toss it aside. (You can't do that with a laptop.) A gesture of dismissal that says, "Feh! Enough of this pettiness! Onward! To the barricades!"

7. All of this should take no more than 20 minutes.

I know a man who is almost my age, and so he grew up with ink on his fingers, and then, for reasons he couldn't explain, he switched over to reading online publications and checking out The New York Times and The Washington Post and Slate, and then found a Web site with streaming video in which a mature Austrian woman with braids tells you what to do. He sits, his eyes locked to hers, as she says, "You vill eat, mein little schweinhund," and upbraids him for imaginary transgressions. If he reaches for the off switch, she screeches at him and a Rottweiler growls low in its throat, and so he is a prisoner of his laptop, his days shot.

This sort of thing happens all the time. The Internet will eat you alive. With newspapers, you're in and out, 20 minutes. It's your life; you choose.


Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.