If you haven’t read Bob Greene, you should know he is a master of schmaltz. He has written books about his high school, his friends, roadtrips, and about anything else that might bring a tear to a reader’s eye while she is reading his column. That said, he is an extraordinarily gifted writer. He is like a Norman Rockwell of newspaper columnists. So, when I saw his recent book about his five years working at the Columbus Citizen-Journal, I moved his book to the top of my list.
I do love newspapers (not as much as books), and I am a fierce defender of their importance to our society. A free press that criticizes, investigates and even entertains is crucial. I believe that Americans are largely stupid-er because they no longer regularly read the newspaper. (Hufffington Post, while great, is NOT a newspaper, and it is NOT an effective substitute.) I think Greene would agree with me. He’s old school.
“Late Edition” is subtitled “A Love Story.” It is just that. It is the story of how Greene fell in love with working at newspapers. If you talk to anyone who has had a career in newspaper reporting, many have had the same experiences. Greene rolls out the schmaltz to describe what the sights and sounds were like in a thriving two-newspaper-town in the sixties. For me, the story was even more relevant because that newspaper used to be in our house every day in Columbus, Ohio. Many of the people and places are familiar.
Greene is a great storyteller. He regales us with tales of how he “came of age” in the newsroom. Indeed, the stories he tells are important lessons for reporters–and for others. For instance:
- After criticizing a tennis player in print, he runs into him the following day. The player is understandably upset. But Greene holds his ground and learns two lessons. “One: When you write something about someone, you should anticipate the moment when you will have to look that person in the eye. Two: If you were correct in what you wrote, you won’t have to worry when that person’s eye meets yours.” An important lesson for anyone (especially emailers.)
- Another lesson was about jumping when your number was called. Reporters are trained to raise their hand and say I’ll go. Greene compares this to poker. “If you weren’t prepared to win the pot, someone else in the [news] room would be.” Most of the reporters I have had the good fortune to work with are the same way. You don’t get ahead by being lazy.
If there is a flaw with Greene’s book, it’s that you can get sick of his overused literary tropes. Did I mention there is schmaltz? There are also those characters that are familiar if you read newspaper columnists in any American city. The everyman to whom something remarkable happens. The executive or politician with the hidden regret. Also: the phrase that trails off at the end of a section (he even mocks himself on this one.) And like many columnists, he uses that short, declarative sentence at the end of a section that is like a gut punch to a reader. It can be very effective, but it also can get old. Look, Greene is a columnist. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this memoir reads like a collection of columns.
The end of the book shifts to Greene’s adult life. He returns to Columbus for the 1985 last printing of the Columbus Citizen-Journal. It is a wonderful chapter in the book. I remember that day and still have a copy of the final edition. Now that my life and career has taken me to a place where the newspaper is still an important tool and part of my job, I don’t think I fully appreciated the sadness of that day. Newspapers were no longer a guarantee. The fall of the C-J left us with less of a communal news experience. Variety and channel choosing is fun, but I do find it troubling that the industry is so segmented that it allows people to seek out the kind of news they want to read, not the kind of news that actually happened. Today, news as a community experience is nearly gone. And that’s something worthy of the schmaltz.
P.S. The title of this post was also the slogan of the Scripps-Howard News Division. I liked it.