Ex Libris #12: Reading in These Trying Times
A battered old journalist from the dear, long-gone Boston Evening Transcript was fond of grousing about deadlines and hack-work, as were many of his equally-hardened colleagues in the newsroom. He watched the endless parade of periodical columns with a permanent pained grimace, and at least a few times a week, he could be found at a back table at Durgin-Park listing the sins of his profession.
To his regular listeners, it was a familiar list, and it would be familiar to listeners today despite the passage of nearly a century: journalists are sanctimonious; journalists are, generally speaking, abysmally stupid; journalists are as easily manipulated as a hypochondriac at a faith healing conference … any viewer of Fox or MSNBC who hasn’t completely abandoned intellectual scrutiny will have many examples of all of these.
But the hack-journalist sin that annoyed that old newsman the most was the laziness of it all. “If you want reliable work out of a journalist,” he used to say, “hand him a deadline and then remove his sense of shame.”
This, too, will be familiar, unfortunately. Columnists and deadline journalists are typically an immensely lazy lot, lunging blindly at any crutch or gimmick that will allow them to make their word count and their deadline with a minimum of actual work. Give a columnist an unsubstantiated rumor, and that journalist will give you 800 words without breaking a sweat. Give a columnist an anniversary of pretty much any kind, and they’re off to the races (“Oh, you didn’t know today was the 241st anniversary of Coleridge’s first paper route? Well! Let me tell you alllll about it …”). So it goes without saying that journalists confronted with a world-wide pandemic will go into autopilot and then well and truly stay there.
The first indication was the absolute ubiquity of the phrase “in these trying times.” Suddenly, that phrase – and only that phrase – was cropping up in the throat-clearing of every single column on any subject whatsoever. It was repeated so many times that it became its own refutation – you quickly reached the point where somebody tossing off an “in these trying times” was practically advertising the fact that they hope you get an IRS audit.
But the laziness reached into the columns themselves as well. Suddenly readers everywhere were getting ridiculous and practically carbon-copied columns like “Top Ten Books about Plagues,” “Top Ten Books about Quarantines,” “Top Ten Books to Help You Forget Plagues and Quarantines,” and so on, until you quite rightly began to wonder about that sense-of-shame business. If that old Transcript journalist weren’t already long dead, the locust-swarm of these pandemic columns would probably have seen him off to Eliot Burying Ground.
The silliness of such deadline hack-work has reached such a crescendo (one recent New York Times headline: “It’s Time to Learn Bridge”)(hint: things will never be that bad) that it’s probably worth remembering the wise words of Montesquieu (who was never a journalist): “There is hardly any grief that an hour’s reading will not dissipate.”
Montesquieu ought to know: his own Persian Letters, the thoughts and adventures of two fictional Persian noblemen as they tour through the France of the day, is the quite delightful occupation of an hour’s reading. Likewise, for instance, Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., which gave the reading world “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and which will certainly beguile an afternoon of wonderful reading whether you’re in quarantine or not. Fanny Trollope’s lilting, gamefully unfair book Domestic Manners of the Americans will keep you reading every bit as easily now is it kept people reading back in 1832. You can finish The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells in an hour, although you might come away brimming with contempt for its title character, you’ll have read nothing topical along the way. And there’s no hint of social distancing in A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books – so deadline-hacks tasked with writing the one-millionth column on plague-books might not mention it.
But they should. The 800-word flavor-of-the-moment column practically writes itself, which is why so many of my fellow deadline hacks slouch in that direction when time is pressing and inspiration is elusive. And it doesn’t require a degree from Columbia to see how counterproductive this approach can be even when it’s done successfully: it turns books into medicine, little printed doses of castor oil that you need to force down in a time of illness. Great online resources like the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are filled with books that don’t need screaming headlines to make them relevant again.
And once the world starts to go back to some semblance of normal – that is, once these trying times start to brighten, those books will be waiting for you to find them on your library shelves as well. We’ll appreciate them even more.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.