Book Review: "The Fiddler In The Subway" by Gene Weingarten

Monday, August 05, 2013

"If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?"


My good friend Pat lent me this sampling of essays by Gene Weingarten, a well-known feature writer for the Washington Post, during a trip to DC last March. I was given a few recommendations, and then I boarded the bus. I’m not a particularly big non-fiction fan, so I was concerned that I would be a bit bored.
Luckily, I was wrong. This is going to sound ridiculous, but I laughed, I cried, I snorted with derision, I got just plain mad. In other words, this book did exactly what a book is supposed to do: inspire emotion.
The Funny: The Armpit of America
Weingarten goes on a mission to find the worst place in America, the “armpit,” so to speak, and finds it in Battle Mountain, Nevada. He profiles the people who live there, and learns more about what it’s like to live in the worst place in America. The best image of the essay: a Shell station overlooking the town with the “S” burnt out. Laugh-out-loud funny.
The Emotional: Fatal Distraction
An essay about the parents who – in a moment of distraction – forgot their small children in their car, and the overarching idea that really it could happen to anyone. Very emotionally riveting and tragic.
The Cute: The Great Zucchini
The Great Zucchini is “Washington’s preeminent preschool entertainer,” a man who makes money and spends it all as quickly as he gets it. I found myself smiling at parts of the story as Weingarten profiles a man who connects with children and makes them laugh, but has no idea how to run his own life.
The Inspiring: Pearls Before Breakfast
Former child prodigy, Joshua Bell, busked in the Washington, D.C. Metro, but most people just walked on by without listening or tipping. Weingarten reveals that context is everything, and that life is simply lived too fast.
A selection of quotes from the book:
A real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal. That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level, that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalizing, unreachable ideal. It’s a torment you can’t escape. It will reach even into the comfort of a drunken sleep, and it will shake you awake, and send you, heart pumping, to an empty piece of paper. If you have that, you can be a good writer. Congratulations, I guess.
For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.
This is another read I highly recommend. In several ways, it changed my life. This week, I took the Staten Island Ferry to the Museum of Natural History in uptown Manhattan. There was a violinist who set up shop at a column by the doors. I took my earbuds out and just listened to the sounds around me for the first time in a long time. It was beautiful.
This entry was originally written on March 28, 2012 and updated on August 4, 2013.