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PRINT PUPS, LOL CATS

NEW YORK

Reader, if you and I can agree on anything, it's that the Internet is made of cats. But we may differ on the follow-up: What else could it be made of? When cats took over on our screens and in our minds, whose regime, exactly, did they replace?

We ignore the fact that before we had the Internet, and before the Internet had its furry totem, media consumers held a different set of animal predilections. We've forgotten that the readers from that ancient age of dusty books preferred the dog, and so they do today. Before the Web page there was the written word. Before kittens ruled the Internet, puppies reigned in print.

The real mystery, then, is not how cats took precedence online, but rather how they managed to dethrone the dog. Our media have been split in two, and each opposing camp — the old against the new — has a spirit animal suited to its ethos. We're reading dogs and clicking cats.

When did our entertainments break along these species lines? And what will happen to the dog, once so proud in literature, as the industry that championed it limps into the future?

The other day I went to visit Yahoo and plugged in the words "cat" and "cats." (I tried them 10 times each.) My searches pulled an average of 1.8 billion hits, nearly two giga-cats of data on the Internet. Then I did the same with "dog" and "dogs," and received one-third as many results. For every Web-enabled pooch, three kittens danced on YouTube.

But what's the mix for books?

On Amazon, canines held the lion's share of search results, by a healthy 2-to-1. A look at Google Books returned the same disparity: The corpus holds 87 million cats and almost twice as many pups. What's more, this trend in published work appears to date back centuries.

Dogs really are the champs in print, while kittens win online. Which brings us back to where we started.

There's an old joke, often (and erroneously) attributed to the founder of Random House, Bennet Cerf, that since people love to read books about Abraham Lincoln, and people love to read books about doctors, and people love to read books about dogs, then the bestselling book of all time ought to be a book called "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog."

Needless to say, no one in the business ever wondered if Lincoln's doctor had a cat. The parade of canine hits started with the corny classics — Old Yeller and White Fang — and now includes some very modern books of science, the kind that tell us what it's like to be a dog. Along the way, it swept up a few of the most famous writers ever to have written: Steinbeck did a doggy book, and so did Virginia Woolf. This highfalutin pedigree lingers even to this day.

Brainy writers have been so inclined to scrutinize the pooch, in fact, they've often tried to get inside its head. Jack London did an early version of the dog-narrator, but so have many others: Paul Auster and Dave Eggers, William Maxwell and Peter Mayle.

Kitties, for their part, have mostly failed to earn the same regard. I've seen omniscient cats, but only on the Web. And here's another, final way to show that canines get respect in print: Dogs in stories die; cats almost never do. (That's just as true in movies, and really any form of narrative. According to one database, the ratio of lifeless dogs to lifeless cats on-screen is 4-to-1.)

Cats have their place in art, of course. They've had it since the dawn of culture. In the Chauvet cave in France, where early humans sketched out animals in 30,000 BCE, the evidence suggests a preference for pussies: Among the horses and the bison, cavemen drew a pride of lions and a panther.

I'm guessing that since ancient times, the cat has been more an image than a text. One scholar of feline memology notes that in the 1870s, photographs of cats were put on cutesy cartes de visite. Nice to look at; nothing much to say. In later years the cat became a star of comic strips, starting with the black-and-white called Felix, and then on and up through Garfield, Hobbes and Heathcliff.

"It's a question of companionship versus observation," says Eamon Dolan, a man who's owned both dogs and cats, and edited a litter of bestsellers. "You develop a relationship with a dog, whereas you observe a cat. Dogs are companions; cats are beautiful, animate objects." I think he means to say: We dialogue with dogs and contemplate our cats.

If cats tend to sit for quiet portraits, it's in part because they tend to sit. When they do go outside, it's to pad around alone, which makes it hard for cats to gin up exploits fit for publication. That's why an animal like Garfield can only live in comic strips: He's too lethargic for a novel.

© 2013 Slate

PRINT PUPS, LOL CATS 04/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 19, 2013 9:18am]
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