Double Take on David Maraniss

Double Take on David Maraniss

or the past two weeks I’ve been walking around with a brand-new copy of David Maraniss’ Into the Story: A Writer’s Journey through Life, Politics, Sports and Loss (Simon & Schuster, January 2010, $26) in my purse. No reason. I’m just smitten with the book and I like having it on my person. Weird, right? Here’s the backstory.

To his publicity agent’s chagrin, , four months before the publication date. Apparently there is some sort of review etiquette I missed along the way—I was supposed to sit on it until closer to the January publication date. Who knew, but either way I thought I was done with the book, which is why I was surprised to find myself so taken with the final version that came in the mail a few days before Christmas. Other than a title change, it was the same thing I’d read last fall.

I’m not big on second readings—there’s too much good stuff I’ve never read—and so I had intended to lend it to one of my editors who expressed an interest in it. And my husband, who is currently binging out on Maraniss biographies (He just got Clemente for Christmas), wants a turn when she’s through with it. Still, I’m just not ready to share with anybody. Case in point: I let my mom read a chapter on the way to Milwaukee but made her put it back in my purse before we dropped her off at the airport. What is my problem?

Maraniss is a longtime Madisonian and still spends part of every year here. He certainly wouldn’t remember meeting me at a Best of Madison party years back but I’ve corresponded with him via e-mail since and by now he might at least recognize my name on the magazine masthead. Kind of, sort of knowing an editor at The Washington Post who is also currently penning a biography on Obama is fun. After all, the guy nabbed a Pulitzer in the 1990s. Honestly, though, I don’t really care about all that; I just love how Maraniss writes. So much so that it’s often difficult for me to read his books. Now, to someone who doesn’t write or edit for a living this may sound more than a little neurotic. But think of it this way. If it is your job to flip burgers, would you or wouldn’t you have a hard time watching someone else flip a burger without noticing her technique? Does she flatten the ground chuck enough but not too much? How heavily does she spice it? Gas or charcoal? Rare or well-done? And the condiments. Oh, the condiments.

See, I am constantly examining the way other people write and edit. I am a puddle for a perfectly constructed Twitter tweet, a poignant and funny Facebook post, or a holiday letter written straight from the heart. (Those that don’t mention foreign exchange students and chronic disease earn extra bonus points at my house.) When it comes to artfully composed literature, I am a complete doting fool. In contrast, poorly penned prose feels worse than the stiff smack of subzero air in winter. Even a typo-laden billboard advertising new and used “carpreting” and “floring” gives me the heebee-geebies.

When I was in grad school I remember reading another writer’s impressions of David Maraniss’ style. I don’t remember who it was, but he gushed about Maraniss’ painstakingly thorough reporting skills and how his characters were so fine-tuned you almost felt their breath rising from the pages. Now, imagine me trying to navigate my way through one of Maraniss’ chapters. It takes all I’ve got not to read every sentence twice. I have to hide the highlighters so I don’t treat them like textbooks.

See, I love the guy’s work so much I just blogged about him all over again. This time, though, his publicist can’t be angry with me because you can go out and buy the book for yourself now. Me, I think I’m finally ready to drop it off at my colleague’s desk, just as soon as I extract this quote and tape it to my computer monitor for inspiration.

“Be open to any possibility, remain flexible, look for connections, let the story take you where it will and yet always use detail for a purpose, with a larger design in mind.”

Unless you’re a journalist this probably sounds a bit esoteric. But unless you flip burgers for a living, the juicy nuances that separate medium from medium-rare probably don’t resonate either.