Thursday, November 12, 2009

Death and Magic

I hope you won't think me macabre for once again directing you to the Economist's obituary column. It's one of my favorite sources of great reading, fascinating information, and skillful writing.

This week, the dead guy is Alan Peters, a renowned British furniture maker. Whoever writes the column takes special pleasure in eulogizing lesser-known, almost banal-seeming people, and coaxing the reader to deem them as fascinating and noble as the great figures more often appearing on this page.

Note how your attention is captured and your mood's altered by the following paragraph:
"Smoothness was essential. He could not understand people who made drawers, or any other piece of furniture, with sharp edges. They had to be planed, rubbed with fine sandpaper, polished with paste wax, to a soft and glowing evenness. He himself could not keep his hands off wood. Reading a book, he would stroke the table beside it. Looking at a chair, his hands would be all over the rails and the struts. Picking up some stray offcut, he would begin to smile. Wood, like a warm and living thing, had to be respected and loved."
I love to dissect evocative, transportive passages like this and pinpoint the word choices underpinning the magic. Take a look for yourself; I'll wait!

It's "begin to smile". There's no reason, per se, for the construction. "He would smile" would have been far more economical, and express the gist of the point. But the rhythm, the elegantly flipped direction of narrative motion, the carefully placed bit of indulgence by an otherwise succinct writer all create an effect. Most of all, there's such emotional intimacy conjured up from the image of Rose languidly beginning to smile! We are suddenly witnesses to a dynamic, living scene rather than a flat portrait.

We come away feeling that we've shared a subtle, secret truth - one which is, ironically, mere whimsical conjecture on the writer's part. A lie! But as Werner Herzog often says, sometimes only lying can convey the greatest truth.

Lies or no, tiny decisions like this, and the care behind them, are what invest writing - or any other creative pursuit - with magic.

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