A Brief Note On Kleingate/Aimai grace note edition
The intertubes burnt up this last week with news of the latest tantrum by occasionally satisfactory MSM writer Joe Klein. The essence of the fracas has been Klein’s shame at being outed for nasty (and inaccurate) stuff he wrote about Glenn Greenwald to a “private” list of about 300 journalists.
(Memo to Joe — back when I worked at Time Inc., when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I heard the legendary Henry Grunwald tell a small group of us peons that nothing in writing should be assumed to be private. If he hand-wrote himself a note on a memo pad on his desk, he said to us, he simply took it as a given that its contents would be known to his counterpart at Newsweek within the day. Email? It’s like taking out an ad in Variety. It says little for the acuity — the mere competence — of a journalist that he would commit anything to such a public medium as a message to a listserve that he wasn’t willing to hear read out in open court.)
Into this furore came the story of the n0w-famous confrontation on the beach between blogger/blog commentator Aimai and the Great Klein himself, also much discussed. To Klein’s distress, I might add, given that (a) Aimai is a witty, graceful, and stilleto-wielding writer, and, as it turns out, possessed of some serious progressive and hard-core journalistic bloodlines, being as she is a grandchild of the genuinely great I.F. Stone.
Klein made another elementary error here: he assumed that his audience was composed of folks he outranked on some intellectual or journalistic or simply analytical scale. He was wrong.
I wrote an admiring comment to the latter piece in which I gave the most love to this bit:
I didn’t confront Klein because I’m somebody. I’m nobody special. I confronted him because I’msomething important—I’m a reader. In fact—I’m one of his readers.* That, it seems, was the unkindest cut of all. Because Klein writes, after a fashion, but he doesn’t read much. Certainly, he doesn’t read like a reader—lots of sources, lots of texts, across genres, and with curiosity. And thus he doesn’t expect that of his own readers. And because he thinks we are helpless birds, mouths open to consume any old regurgitated pap from daddy’s crop, he doesn’t acknowledge the duty he owes to his readers. To be diligent, to be thoughtful, to be honest, and above all to remember what he himself has written. He lacks the ethic of responsibility in a journalistic sense.
What I love about this, above the topical joy of this exacto-fine dissection, (Klein “writes, after a fashion”….yeeow!), is the way she celebrates reading as a a vocation.
That strikes a chord — and perhaps corrects an error I’ve made for years now. Each year, at this season, I tell my students that if they want to succeed as writers, they have to start reading like a professional. And by that I mean they can’t just read for pleasure, or for the information or whatever. They have to read with an attention to form, to technique, to the work behind the words that they can identify. And that’s true. Reading to penetrate the process of writing that gave rise to what one perceives as the success or failure (or perhaps better, merely the qualities of) a piece of writing is something that writers do all the time, ultimately almost unconsciously, as part of our continuing education.
But Aimai’s comment points to something deeper, I think. Reading like a pro is an instrumental practice; we do it to achieve something through that action. Aimai’s reading is a craft: it is at once a means to some desired outcome and an end in itself, a process that is its own reward.
And that’s what I want my students to grasp; it’s what I want to remember to do, to avoid being swamped by the fact of information when I want to achieve understanding — and even more, that deep pleasure when I get what some other voice is trying to tell me, across whatever distance of time, experience, distance.
So, starting yesterday in the orientation for the next class of MIT science writers, I told the newest crop that they need to read like pros, certainly, but never to stop thinking of themselves as members of a craft.
One more thing — Aimai had a little more to say, it turned out, and she was kind enough to respond directly to my comment on her blog with a story, one that tells a great deal about the difference between a genuine reader and writer and those masquerading as such in our public discourse now.
Since I’ve been outed as Izzy’s granddaughter (one of three), Tom Levenson, I’ll tell you that my earliest memories of my grandfather were of watching him walk down to the Out of Town News Agency, [now gone, and lamented, as the greatest repository of the world’s newspaper I ever knew in the middle of Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA–tl] when he was visiting, and return with a stack of newspapers. Izzy read from the back of the paper to the front, something I still do. I think it was because, as he said, “you never know on which page of the Times you’ll find a page one story.” Another reason was that the meat of the story was always low down and the mere teaser at the front was usually very deceptive.
He would start at the back and then tear the paper into long strips of columns that he would clip together and then compare across writers, newspapers, and of course across time and genre.
A few years ago I read a biography of Darwin. He spent years working on earthworms, every afternoon in his study. One of his sons, upon hearing that a neighbor’s father was going out in the afternoon, asked “but when does he work on his worms?” That’s the way I feel about the practice of reading. Surely, every journalist does the same thing? But then, you meet up with a Klein, and you find out that they *aren’t working on their worms at all.*
Thank you, Aimai, for this story. You don’t get to be Mr. Stone unless you do Mr. Stone…
That is all.
Image: Pieter de Hooch, “Woman Reading a Letter,” before 1684.