We copy editors are the skeptics, the nay-sayers, the fault-finders. We look at a text expecting to find it defective and are seldom disappointed.
Last month, when the sump pump failed, the basement flooded, and the carpeting had to be replaced, I first had to shift all the books and bookcases out of the way. Handling those hundreds of books, one by one, reminded me how much they have meant. We became editors because we were readers first, and since Dr. Johnson was correct in saying that no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures, there must be something we enjoy about reading. So instead of complaining today, I offer a look at what pleases at least one editor.
For years I've been presenting in workshops a little gem of a news feature in The Sun by Billl Glauber. His account of the funeral of Ronnie Kray, a British gangster, is meticulously constructed and irresistible to readers. And it’s 700 words long, a reproach to the writers who imagine that anything shy of 3,000 words is beneath their dignity.
Look at the opening paragraph:
LONDON — The streets of the East End were filling with kids and grandparents, shoppers and photographers, all following the six black-plumed horses, the Victorian glass hearse awash with flowers and the 27 Daimler limousines on a final journey from funeral home to church.
Now look at the second paragraph:
Yesterday, Ronnie Kray — mobster, murderer, paranoid schizophrenic — was given a funeral fit for a king.
Who among you could resist that?
For years I've been reading John McPhee’s essays, either in The New Yorker or his books. No matter how unlikely the subject — geology, shad, the manufacture of Scotch whisky — he has an eye for the telling detail and the carefully machined sentence. Of Laphroaig whisky he says that it is “so smoky, so heavy, so redolently peaty that a consumer feels he is somehow drinking a slab of bacon.”
Last Christmas I was given a copy of Joan Didion’s collected essays, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, more than a thousand pages of work published over the past 40 years, all of it solid. From "On Self-Respect," published in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, about her failure to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa:
I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and a proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the non-plused apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.
Nearly every page is fascinating in Robert A. Caro's account of how Lyndon Johnson ruled the United States Senate in the late 1950s, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. The same assurance in managing a complex chronology while illuminating complex personalities runs throughout Taylor Branch's history of the civil rights movement told through the lens of Martin Luther King's life: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan's Edge. There is heroism there. And a shift in perspective on the same era shows the heroism of the journalists, black and white, who covered the vents; The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, has just won a Pulitzer Prize.
Further back, the historian Robin Lane Fox has traced the classical era from Homer to Hadrian in The Classical World. Here is some of what he has to say about Thucydides:
[He] favored a new and penetrating realism. The gap between expectation and outcome, intention and event fascinated him. So did the bitter relations between justice and self-interest, the facts of power and the values of decency. He was well aware of the difference between truth and rhetorical pleading. ... Thucydides was no cynic, not a person who always imputes a selfish and unworthy motive to participants. Rather, he was a realist, having learned the hard lesson that in inter-state relations, powers simply rule where they can, a fact of life which others, professing justice, obscure or ignore at their peril.
Or this apt description of the people of the Appalachian Highlands from Ellen Gilchrest's Net of Jewels:
This is where my father's people came when they left Scotland. They are cold laughing people, with beautiful faces and unshakable wills. They are powerful and hot-tempered. They never forget a slight, never forgive a wrongdoing. They seldom get sick. They get what they want because they believe they are supposed to have it. They believe in God as long as he is on their side. If he wavers, they fire the preacher.
I'll call an arbitrary halt here, but as a lifelong bookworm, drunk on words for half a century, I know that there is a world of good stuff out there, and I will continue to burrow through it as long as my eyes hold out.