THE MAN WHO INVENTED SATURDAY MORNING
And Other Adventures in American Enterprise
By David Owen
Villard. 216 pp. $16.95
Collections of journalism are only as good as the journalists who assemble them, which is why most such books have a life expectancy of approximately six minutes. But certain journalists -- especially those who work at greater length than the columnist's customary 800 words -- are if anything even better between hard covers than they originally were in magazines or newspapers. Among the collections that come to mind are Roger Angell's early baseball books, Nora Ephron's tart pieces on feminism, Tom Wolfe's less mannered profiles and diatribes, and, needless to say, the many collections by the great wits and sages of The New Yorker's halcyon days: Thurber, White, Gibbs, Perelman et al.
David Owen may not be quite ready to join such company but, on the evidence of "The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning," give the fellow time. I'd read these 11 pieces when first they appeared in Harper's and The Atlantic, but gathered into a single volume they make strikingly clear that there's no one writing about American business quite the way Owen does -- and that is most definitely intended as a compliment.
To begin with, Owen is funny; Andrew Tobias is funny, too, but he does financial advice, not profiles and investigations. Owen finds economic life as amusing as it is interesting, and he is sufficiently irreverent to make the wry comment when one strikes him as appropriate. Thus, for example, when writing about a business convention he notes in an aside that "as has been the case in every classroom I've ever sat in, the females generally wrote down everything while the males looked around," while an inquiry into satellite television produces the observation that "there are two circumstances in which you are allowed to watch as much television as you want to: when you are sick and when you are at a motel."
A piece on conventions and another on satellite dishes: This precisely illustrates the range of Owen's interests. While most business writers concentrate, with perfectly good reason, on the big corporations that dominate the economy and the headlines, Owen makes a beeline for the enterprises we take for granted or the others we've never heard about. It's typical of him to think that a piece on trade magazines would be interesting, to write one that's every bit as interesting as could be hoped for, and to include in the course of it a comment that precisely sums up what he likes to write about:
"Before I started piling up trade magazines, I had a vague, free-floating sense -- derived mostly from watching the evening news -- that there were only about a dozen different jobs in the United States: my job, Dan Rather's job, the president's job, steelworking, farming, banking, law-enforcement, driving taxis, several others. But now I realize that the economy is almost inconceivably various and that in addition to the occupations just mentioned there are also jobs involving, for example, the building of clam bunk skidders, the marketing of feller-bunchers, and the repairing of log forks ... "
Apart from showing where Owen's true interests lie, that paragraph demonstrates why reading him is such a pleasure. In the age of "personal" journalism, when mediocre and self-involved writers insist on shoving themselves into the center of everything they write, Owen enters the story only when he belongs there and never with an ounce of self-importance. His manner is that of the bemused, curious, somewhat innocent outsider who just wants to learn everything he can about this odd business he's chanced upon; as journalistic personae go it's most appealing, and it wears well.
The subjects to which he turns his attentions in these pieces include, along with those already mentioned, the vast changes that have taken place in the selling and advertising of toys (the title story); the manufacture of frozen foods, desserts in particular; the rise of photocopying ("The Xerox machine has given ordinary people an extraordinary means of preserving and sharing all sorts of information. And yet, we take it for granted"); and the mysteries of Multilevel Marketing, a k a pyramid schemes.
In each piece Owen is lucid, informative and uncondescending, not to mention entertaining; his interest in what other people do seems both bottomless and sincere, and he manages to convey this enthusiasm to the reader. "The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning" is wonderful fun, and it's first-rate journalism as well.