The news needs novelty

Monday, August 3, 2009 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 12:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Lions and tigers and ligers. (Oh, my.)  

So might have gone the old mantra at the recent Boone County Fair animal show, as two ligers walked onto the stage; that’s what I imagined the crowd chanting, at any rate, as I read about the menagerie on the home page of the Missourian’s Web site.  

My more serious consideration was what merited the story’s headlining position in the first place, why readers should have first been greeted not with the latest news on health care or foreign affairs but by a giant portrait of a baby liger named Charlie.

Partly, of course, the cuteness of the hybrid kitty was in play. Young Charlie, half-lion and half-tiger, had a dynamite eye-to-face ratio, and many people, myself included, have a general policy of adoring any young animal fluffier than an iguana.

But he really warranted the spot, at least in my browser, because he’s a freak (in the dictionary-definition rather than Rick-James sense). He is an abnormal phenomenon, an unusual object, an aberration. And as such, he feeds one of humans’ most pressing yet seemingly frivolous needs: getting a daily dose of novelty.

Granted, this is not an absolute, food-and-water type of need. One can hardly imagine our ancestors draped across chaise lounge shaped rocks, idly twirling their clubs and toying with the idea of mating a saber-toothed tiger and a wooly mammoth — you know, just to spice things up a bit. One limp-wristed Neanderthal turns to the other: “The Ice Age has just gotten so blah.”  

But seeing that novelty is clearly important to people in a modern context is as easy as going on eBay. There you'll find the phone number of pop-song fame, 867-5309, has brought bids more than $5,600, purely for novelty's sake.

And to get some perspective on why that is, we can turn to thinkers slightly more accredited than Tommy Tutone; though they might not have been writing with Jenny in mind, philosophers have been considering the power of novelty for centuries. 

Edmund Burke wrote in the 18th century about how integral novelty is to human satisfaction because of its ability to generate curiosity. “We see children perpetually running from place to place, to hunt out something new,” he wrote. “They catch with great eagerness, and with very little choice, at whatever comes before them … because every thing has, in that stage of life, the charm of novelty to recommend it.”

“The same things make frequent returns, and they return with less and less of any agreeable effect,” he continues. So we have to seek that charm out in other places, in an attempt to recapture that naïve happiness of youth. Charlie helps that happen by allowing adult viewers to recapture the surprise and fascination their toddler selves would have felt upon first seeing a zebra or a rooster.

The service a home page-liger provides, however, is more than being pleasurable in itself. Getting sidetracked by a little novelty helps news readers recharge their emotional and rational batteries for the dreary or distressing fodder that often graces the front page instead.  

Strange though it may seem, the recharging-role of Charlie makes me think of Shakespeare. With some early tragedies, he misses out these novel interludes and leaves the audience in desperate need of a break. In “Titus Andronicus,” for example, horror after horror occurs. People are relentlessly murdered, undone or raped, and it's hard to be anything but numb by the time it's through.

But in later tragedies, the bard more often drew on the seemingly superficial but crucial feeling of novelty to give his audience a chance to replenish their tear ducts. Take “The Tempest,” one of his latest, wherein magical feasts and apparitions appear between pathetic scenes of families being shipwrecked, separated and saved: The presence of both helps one have the energy to appreciate both the pomp and the import.

Charlie, then, for all that his appeal might seem shallow or random, serves a similar purpose, and I’m glad his mug is the novel one I saw when my page loaded that day. After all, he not only gave me a break from the cold, hard world but also an excuse to put my work aside and watch “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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