Sunday, January 29, 2006

Writer's Envy

I consume a vast amount of expository writing on a daily basis. I do a bit of it myself. However, there is only one modern writer who writes about public affairs so well as to put my poor attempts at prose to complete shame. I am not alone in that regard. He trumps us all.

Ordinary good writers know how to punctuate, spell, paragraph, organize a piece and make a point or two in so doing. Our writing is no more interesting than that which we write about. The same cannot be said of truly brilliant expository writers and the brightest light of the current generation is Theodore Dalrymple. You know that you have encountered a truly great writer -- a creative genius -- when the joy of reading his or her prose transcends the subject written about. That came clear to me when reading an essay in Dalrymple's "Our Culture or What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses".

One of Dalrymple's earlier essays describes nothing more than his reflections on visiting exhibitions of Mary Cassat's work and Joan Miro's later works in New York on the same day. I am not a fan of either painter. I had no interest in the subject matter whatsoever but was entirely enthralled by the writer's prose. I read it through for the simple pleasure of reading English language expository writing at its best and the subject matter be damned. The same held true throughout. Dalrymple's writing was better, to me, than what he wrote about. His observations and analyses were to me persuasive and affirmative but in the end the way in which he expressed them utterly awe-inspiring.

I have also read Dalrymple's "Life at the Bottom" and found it to be the most compelling piece of social commentary I have either read or can imagine. It is utterly brilliant. His prose is not florid or clever or poetic. I cannot recall a turn of phrase. Dalrymple's prose is a partially open window into his mind and soul and a gateway to some of the realities he has experienced. It is one thing to tell people what you have seen. We can all do that. Making people see what you have seen through your eyes is a truly magical gift. Dalrymple is in that respect truly gifted. I pray for his health and longevity. I hope I go to my final resting place before he has written his final word.


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