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Archive for April, 2010

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“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

The other night I was reading a short piece by travel author, Paul Theroux. Theroux has distinguished himself over the last few decades as something of a man of letters, whose fiction and non-fiction explores the many faces of humanity, like good Greek drama. He’ll talk about the common in a way that is extraordinary, causing us to look at things as though for the first time.

Part of his gift is that Theroux is a master in setting up a scene, or a character in a scene, with great yet subtle details, with a satisfying payoff in the end. Whether that’s to be shocked, amused, or challenged.

I was reading a story called “Sadik,” from The Great Railway Bazaar, about a traveling companion on one leg of his journey. A picture is painted of a seedy, unattractive, but highly shrewd and entertaining man.

The picture was painted so well, that by story’s end, I didn’t see what was coming. Like a sucker punch to the gut, I found myself howling in laughter. The best laugh I’ve had in a long time. I laughed so hard that I could not finish the short paragraph, as I could not get a focus as my book was shaking, and tears began to form. I had to pause before reading the next sentence; pause and laugh hard again before finishing.

To prove the story’s power, I recalled it a couple times the following day—and began to laugh once more.

There’s plenty to occupy our thoughts and days that have a quite opposite effect: a painful memory that brings shame and regret. A missed opportunity. A strain in a relationship. Worrying about all there is to do in the coming week. Things that have power, too, but in a way that shrivels, and even kills.

That’s why I’m grateful for the interruption of this story. For a moment, it rescued me from the routine and invited me to enjoy myself freely without thinking about all these other things. And that is a wonderful payoff.


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