Cusp

How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

The Page 99 Test

A novelist once said the "quality of the whole" of any book is found on page 99.

Not long ago, I got an email from Marshal Zeringue, a book blogger who has a blog called The Page 99 Test. It exists to test the hypothesis expressed by the novelist Ford Madox Ford: "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

Marshal asked me if I wanted to apply the Page 99 Test to my daughter's and my book Twentysomething, and write it up for his blog. So I did, with surprising results. As I wrote for Marshal.

I was skeptical about the Page 99 Test when asked to apply it to Twentysomething, a book I co-wrote with my 27-year-old daughter Samantha about what it's like to be a young adult today, and how that compares to young adulthood back in the Baby Boomers' day. In the book Samantha and I focus on the decisions young people must make in their twenties, learning to close some doors after being told their whole lives to keep their options open.

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So imagine my surprise when I turned to page 99 and found that it was smack in the middle of our chapter on Love and Marriage, a section we called "Settling versus Settling Down." I don't know that I'd say this single page reveals "the quality of the whole," but it does raise a lot of our central themes.

In earlier chapters, we write a lot about the process of decision-making: how it goes against the grain of most young people to watch doors close (we describe a psych experiment in which young people played a video game and literally resisted letting the door icons disappear), how it becomes more complicated the more options there are (the so-called "paradox of choice"), and how different people favor different styles of decision-making (social scientists call them "maximizers" versus "satisficers").

On page 99, we're writing about decisions about love and marriage, specifically about the resistance a lot of twentysomethings have to committing to marriage -- as reflected in the increase in the age of first marriage in the past 50 years, to about 26.5 today for women, 28.7 for men. But what Millennials might not realize, as we write on page 99, is that "the search for a partner can get harder with age."

Here's how we describe the "settling versus settling down" quandary (this chapter is written in Samantha's voice):

It’s not that there are no great guys out there. There are plenty. Most of the ones I’ve dated, whether we met through mutual friends or an online dating site, have all the basic requirements. They’re smart, good-looking, and funny enough that you can tell yourself they’re funny. They value time with friends, care about their jobs, love their mothers. But they all have flaws. Nothing major, but little things: this one interrupts a conversation to make you sit in front of his sound system so you can really feel the music; that one posts too many black-and-white glamour shots on Facebook of himself wearing old-fashioned hats.

If all these guys I’ve dated seem roughly equal, does that mean it’s in my power to decide which quirk is the one I’ll spend the rest of my life gently chiding someone about—whether to resign myself to a life of turntables or fedoras? How does one choose such a thing?

Five years ago it would have been easy: I’d have picked the quirks of R., the one I was with.... [But] once you open the field to all players, it gets tough to handicap them.

Later on that same page, I took the chance to weigh in with my own observation about not only Samantha's love life and marital options at age 22, but my own.

When Sam followed R. to Cambridge when she was twenty-two, I half-hoped it was the prelude to marriage, just as my first cohabitation had been the prelude to mine. But I realize now that their arrangement, and even their apartment, looked likemy dream of being twenty-two, not hers. Such a pretty apartment, with its French doors and eat-in kitchen—it fit my picture of young-couple domesticity perfectly, even more perfectly than the actual apartment Jeff and I moved into, which had a kitchen so cramped we couldn’t both stand in it at the same time. It’s not that I wanted to be a wife and mother only—I always intended to have a career, as did all the twentysomething women I knew—but I wanted to be a wife and mother also. In a way, marrying early made my life easier; I chose a husband, which imposed enough constraints on my subsequent decisions to offer a kind of clarity. Sam has no such clarity. I feel for her (while at the same time admiring and even envying her independence). I’ve read enough studies about the paradox of choice to know how tough that wide open field can be.

And that’s something else this page "reveals" about the rest of the book: we talk back and forth to one another, using our own life stories to illuminate the experiences of twentysomethings in general. We bolster our first-person anecdotes with lots of social science research findings, but here on Page 99, talking about love, we go heavy on the personal.

I'd never heard of the Page 99 Test until Marshal mentioned it to me, but now I see that it's used by some readers to decide whether to buy a book. Open the book (if, by some miracle, you're actually standing in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore), turn to page 99, read it, and decide if you want to turn the page. I usually do this with Page 1, personally, but next time I'm on a book-buying spree, I might give Page 99 a try.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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