THE New York Times has a slogan that goes like this: all the news that’s fit to print. I like to add another: all the writers that are so good to read. Among my favorites are the cast of food writers, especially Melissa Clark. Then there are the columnists: Frank Bruni, Roger Cohen, and Joe Nocera. Here are world-class writers I turn to constantly to nourish my mind, to plant new seeds of inquiry, and to learn the wickedly difficult craft of writing. Reading them, you marvel at their erudition, their skill at sentence-making, their insight—all tempered with just the right touch of humor and music, the kind that only poetry can produce.
If you asked me who, among this pantheon of thinkers, has the greatest influence on my life at the present time, I’d say it’s Frank Bruni. I read and re-read him, and clip his pieces more than any of his other colleagues. There are so many things to like about him, his vast experience for one.
He’s covered such a wide range of topics for the Times in his first nine years there—politics, religion, crime, immigration, movies, books, even the Miss America pageant—before becoming the Rome bureau chief in mid-2002, “keeping one eye on a sinking Venice, the other on a flagging Pope.” From 2004 to 2009, he was the chief restaurant critic, and in 2011, he became an Op-Ed columnist, writing about politics, social issues, education, and culture.
He has also written three books, each on startlingly different subject matters: Ambling Along: The Unlikely Odyssey of George W. Bush (2002), Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite (2010), and Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015).
Just looking at the title of his books, you can’t help but be drawn to his gift for poetry: the alliteration on family, food, and ferocious appetite; how loaded the phrasal verb ambling along is; and the jarring equation of two seemingly opposite attributes: “where” with “who.”
In his memoir Born Round, you find, within the first two pages, all the hallmarks of classic Bruni—that wonderful gift of showing, the clever wordplay, the wry humor, the ready self-deprecation. In the opening scene, we see him on the phone in his Rome office with the editor of the Home, Style, and Dining pages. She’s offering him the restaurant critic’s job. He laughs.
Now, we don’t just hear him laugh at the absurdity of her suggestion, we feel the silliness of it: I knew more about papal encyclicals than about Peking Duck and had little more reason to think I’d get this restaurant critic job than to believe I’d be anointed the next Pope. He goes on to heighten his inadequacy for the part by making a hilarious comparison between himself and the editor: I assessed prime ministers; she, prime beef.
This is just the kind of sentences that populate his prose. They call up pictures, they evoke poetry, and then they make you wonder if all his words just fall in place by coincidence. But surely, craft is all planned, and any coincidence is a sheer result of confidence and mastery, even courage. He never panders to his readers, he never dumbs down his writing.
As the Times Op-Ed columnist, its first openly gay one, he writes from the heart, sharing his anguish, his side of the story, his call for equality. His education and political pieces are filled with the same kind of voice, an urgency that cries for action, and at the very least, a recognition of our flaws and follies.
Do I even have half the courage or clarity of mind to write like that? That’s why I read Bruni furiously and faithfully.
Which person has the greatest influence on your life at the present time, and why?
(‘O’ Levels 2014, Paper One, Question #3)
This essay was written on August 10, 2015
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