Monday, July 12, 2010

A Book Review: Fiddling Away the Hours

Print journalism is dying, they say. The evidence is all around us. The shrunken corpses of once mighty newspapers lie crumpled and discarded, soon to vanish on the next puff of wind. Great buildings that once had throbbed with huge machinery, devouring paper forests and drinking ink rivers, are veritable whited sepulchers, empty and silent, empty even of echoes. The universe, too, is winding down, if we are to believe the reports. Nothing lasts forever. But there are yet bright spots in the darkness. That is one of the corollaries of entropy. Some papers are still turning out thoughtful work. The Washington Post is one of those bright spots. Yes, it has suffered along with the rest of the industry, but it has fought back. There are still reasons why print journalism matters. Gene Weingarten, more often than not, is one of those reasons. The articles collected in this book demonstrate why newspapers were and continue to be necessary. Nowhere else can you find writing this good about subjects that, however unlikely to warrant attention some may seem, should be noticed. Newspapers make this kind of writing possible.

The topics run the gamut from b to b, baseball to babies. Well, there are some other letters, too. There is great reporting in The First Father, an investigation that begins in the dark, literally, and ends up bringing to light the hidden story of Bill Clinton's biological father, W.J. Blythe. There is the search for the Armpit of America, in which our intrepid reporter has to stumble upon something nice to say about Battle Mountain, Nevada. And then there are the two pieces for which Pulitzer prizes in Feature Writing were awarded: the title story, The Fiddler in the Subway (originally titled Pearls Before Breakfast), the story of what happens when an audacious but simple stunt turns into a wildly successful feature, reprinted everywhere, and Fatal Distraction, an unflinching look into a grievous modern-day trend, the deaths of children through inattention.

Those are the topics, but the real subjects of all the included articles are lurking in the background. They are two, the more potent of whom is Time. For it is Time that stalks through each of these journalistic essays. Journalism is, after all, the record of what happened in the day. Time the patient, inexorable hunter, whose arrows fly but one way, straight into the heart, is the prime mover of all these works. The time since Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single season home run record. The instant of time it takes to forget a child in the back seat of a locked car. Time to stop and listen to the falling of the rose petals of a violin concert, the notes almost drowned out by the tread of the mundane. And the second subject? Time has a companion, a bloodhound, who lopes along before his master. But the bloodhound likes to pause and circle and backtrack when it comes upon an interesting scent. It likes to dig in the most peculiar places, and often in the most disgusting messes. Its gait is loose, sloppy, leisurely. It is the reporter. You glimpse him now and then, but it is his voice that you hear downwind, seemingly far off at times, but insistent. Yes, it is the reporter and Time who are the real subjects. So, when the obituary for print journalism is finally written, there is one person who should be chosen to write it: Dave Barry. Gene Weingarten will be busy sniffing under some rock, trying to make sense of it all.

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