About four years ago, I read an article in The Washington Post called “Pearls Before Breakfast.” It ranks among the best articles I’ve ever read. Others seemed to agree with me—the author, Gene Weingarten, won the Pulitzer Prize for this long feature. The premise of the article is that Weingarten convinced a famous violinist, Joshua Bell, to essentially become a busker at a Metro stop in DC one morning. The article is about what happened as Bell played beautiful music and thousands of people walked past.
I copied it and shared it widely with friends and people at work. The article reads like you are listening to Bell’s brilliant music, at times it is quiet and somber and at other times it is loud and passionate. The pacing of the story is perfect—probably Weingarten’s best skill as a writer is how he paces a story. Bottom line is that the article is just fantastic. Click the link and read it if you want, but really, you owe it to yourself to spend $10.87 on Weingarten’s book, “Fiddler in the Subway,” which contains this piece and several others.
“Pearls Before Breakfast” is really just the tip of the iceberg in the book. There’s a story about a young girl in a coma who allegedly causes miracles, a story about a children’s entertainer, a story about parents who leave their children in hot cars (difficult to read but simply amazing writing, for which Weingarten won a second Pulitzer) and a very funny feature about the “Armpit of America.”
I picked “Fiddler” for our book club this month as a nice way to end the third year of our group’s discussions. I would have probably picked this book anyway, but good fortune struck when Weingarten tweeted that he would be willing to Skype with book clubs and journalism classes. A few emails were exchanged, and the date was confirmed. Bonus.
We showed up. But Weingarten didn’t.
I’ll admit I was very disappointed. I had several questions for him and was looking forward to hearing from a writer that I admire. The next day, when I was Googling to see if a famous columnist for the Washington Post had died in a freak typewriter-related accident, I found this recent piece on Weingarten in the Washingtonian. I think it explains nicely why he didn’t call:
“When Weingarten is reporting a story, according to everyone, he’s focused on that and nothing else. He ceases to be a human being—he becomes, in his own words, “the machine.” He hoovers up information and that’s it. Maybe he sleeps. Maybe he eats a sandwich. But mostly he does what he does until it’s done.
“‘He’s worthless when he’s reporting a story,’ says Shroder, who considers Weingarten ‘hugely intelligent and hugely insane.'”
Though he may be disorganized, he’s also a kind man. The next day, a very remorseful two-time Pulitzer winner called me personally to apologize and then sent our group one of the funniest apology notes I’ve ever received. In it, Weingarten confesses to killing Tim Russert and driving under the influence of heroin. It was a clever and honest apology and all is forgiven.
I’m sure we will schedule a followup book club in hopes Mr. Weingarten will try again.
In the meantime, go get this book. It’s great stuff.
There’s one more post to come before the end of the year here on So Much To Read, and it will be about The Art of Fielding, which is just plain excellent so far. I had huge expectations for this book, and 300 pages in, it’s meeting every one of them. Hope you stop back and check it out.
But before I go, back to Weingarten. In the prologue of Fiddler, Weingarten writes about writing. It’s the perfect opening for his book, and it’s instructive on many levels. I’ve been trying to do a little bit more writing lately, outside of just this blog, and these words ring true more than you know. I’m excerpting rather liberally and without worry, knowing full well that Weingarten sort of owes me one after missing our book club.
“There’s one last truth that I don’t tell [aspiring writers], because it’s needlessly disturbing and would serve no pragmatic purpose. I’ll say it now, just once, and be done with it. A real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal. That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalizing, unreachable ideal.
“It’s a torment you can’t escape. It will reach even into the comfort of a drunken sleep, and it will shake you awake and send you, heart pumping, to an empty piece of paper.
“If you have that, you can be a good writer. Congratulations, I guess.”
Have a great holiday. And thanks for reading.