I go back and slowly re-read paragraphs, tasting the language in the same way I slowly enjoy a sip of cabernet or a bite of an Italian beef sandwich, the Chicago kind that drips gardiniere down my arms and onto my shirt.
When writing is good, it lingers in the tastebuds of the brain.
Like you I’ll bet, I usually can’t wait to get to the end of a good book. But with the best books, I tend to read in small bites, stretching out the joy of reading to make it last longer.
I’ve been doing that with “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns.” There are 400 pages in this Overlook Press hardcover, and although I bought it sometime this winter I’ve just finished the last entry here in June.
Yep, it’s that good.
Columnists, my heroes
Okay, maybe it’s because I’m a newspaper guy that I’ve been so taken with this is collection of commentary pieces that appeared in American newspapers over the past 250-plus years, Ben Franklin’s from before this country even was this country.
But no matter what your life’s work, if you want a thorough refresher course in history, if you want to know what Americans have cared about over the years, if you want to get in touch with the spirit and soul of the United States, just read these columns.
There’s Ernie Pyle writing from the front lines of World War II about “the God-damned infantry,” Mary McGrory covering the funeral of JFK, Mitch Albom on a college basketball team you’ve never heard of and Mike Royko skewering the infamous Picasso that sits (where else?) but in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.
There’s great sports stuff. You can re-read the renown Grantland Rice’s piece on the famous Notre Dame football backfield — you remember, “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again.” There’s equally famous Red Smith on the ’51 Dodgers, the “Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.”
But there’s also intriguing columns about obscure people and events. A guy a never heard of from the LA Times, Bill Plaschke, wrote a beauty of story, one I didn’t want to end, about a letter-writer who used to rip him — and, well, you gotta read that one yourself to find out the ending.
Back in 1956, a Southern writer named Harry Golden wrote this hilarious and courageous column satirizing racism in his neck of the woods with an ingenious idea called “The Vertical Negro Plan.” The theory? Black people are only a problem for whites when they “set.” So his solution to school segregation is to remove all the seats, so that white students don’t have to “sit” next to a black student. And that’s just the start of Golden’s superb commentary piece.
There’s so much more. There’s Art Buchwald and Dave Barry. There’s Ernest Hemingway (yeah, he was a newspaper guy) and Dorothy Thompson. There are writers newspaper junkies of a certain age (always wanted to work that phrase into my writing) hold up as heroes, folks like H.L. Mencken, Langstson Hughes, Damon Runyon, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and so many more.
With time running out…
Perhaps the one piece that jumped out at me as the penultimate example of the columnist’s art — superb writing as the clock ticks toward the newspaper’s press deadline — was written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, a piece syndicated in newspapers across the country.
It was carried in papers on 9/12/2001.
It was headlined, “We’ll Go Forward From This Moment.”
It was addressed to the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center towers.
It asked the questions, “What lesson did you hope to teach up by your coward’s attack?…What was it you hoped we would learn? Whatever it was, please know that it failed. Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause. Did you want to make us fear you? You just steeled our resolve. Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.”
There’s more, so much more. In this and in just about every entry.
If you savor good writing, treat yourself to a great big serving. But one bite at a time.