Writing Worth Reading

There’s some really bad writing out there.  That sounds mean, but it’s true.  We’ve all read books or articles and upon finishing, thought to ourselves, “Why on earth did I spend so much time on that?”

And what makes those experiences particularly frustrating is knowing that we missed out on reading one of the many really good pieces of writing that are also out there.  While there’s certainly value in seeing something that is not worth respecting, good writing is more fun to read than bad writing.  It makes us pause and think.  It forces us to consider how we would feel in the author’s position, or the ways our argument might diverge from theirs.  Some pieces might compel us to emulate their style, while others are simply to be admired for their beauty.  Either way, reading really good writing is a way to make us better writers, and we should do it frequently and carefully.

I’d like to get some use out of my history degree.  I might not become a historian, but I’d still like to think about the past critically and try to make sense of how it affects our lives today.  This is what makes writing that includes history so interesting to me.  I love seeing historical evidence back up an argument; not only does it makes the assertion more powerful, but it also validates my degree and helps me escape the feeling that there will be no use for it in the future.

I would love to write a piece like Timothy Egan’s “Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia.”   The past is inherently connected to the present; we inherit from history lessons that teach us how to avoid old mistakes.  Egan does this, in deliciously cutting language, to criticize Paul Ryan’s ironic pride in being Irish without realizing what that really means.

Egan illustrates this point frequently through juxtaposition.  Immediately after describing the historical context in which Irish people starved at the hands of the wealthy British during the Potato Famine, Egan describes Ryan’s willingness to let the poor in America starve at his own wealthy hands.  This makes obvious the lunacy of Ryan’s willingness to play the same role as the people who almost killed his bloodline a hundred and sixty odd years ago.  It draws parallels between the past and the present, which is a more effective way to illustrate Egan’s criticism than if he has simply said “Ryan should support the poor.”

Egan uses historical facts frequently, but not so much so that they overwhelm the reader.  Instead, he grounds these facts in their relation to the present; never does he mention something that would not be interesting to today’s politically aware readers.  This is a balance that I hope I will be able to strike should I ever write about history’s relation to modern society.  Egan seems to understand that the public’s interest in the past is limited, and that accessible but significant information written in snappy rhetoric is the best way to maintain their attention and make a point.

Let’s be honest, this probably isn’t the source you’d like to learn history from.

History is important.  It has led us to where we are today and can help guide us through the future.  We should always consider the past when thinking about the present, which is what makes Egan’s article so effective.  It uses historical context to make a statement, and it proves that references to the past can be found in witty, opinionated pieces.  Although this type of historical writing doesn’t achieve the depth that the work of academics does, it reaches a broader audience than those pieces do.  It makes history relevant to people who otherwise wouldn’t care about it, and that makes it worthy of admiration and emulation.

As I’ve mentioned before, reality TV is one of my passions.  Unfortunately, most big thinkers of the world don’t seem to feel the same, so there’s seldom an engaging and thought-provoking piece about the genre.  That’s part of the reason I love Susie Meister’s “Confessions of a serial reality TV star.”  Meister may have appeared on seven seasons of MTV’s Road Rules and The Challenge, but her piece is frank and does not pander to the network.  It asks readers to consider both the downsides to reality TV and what makes it so addicting.

Is it just me, or does she look too respectable for reality TV?

Meister begins by drawing us into the world of MTV in much the same way that she was drawn into it at eighteen.  She is paradoxically cognizant and naive of her role on the show, just as any rookie to TV would be.  She knows that she is being typecast, but she still believes in the goodness of the social experiment.  She knows that the producers are pushing her and her castmates for interesting storylines, but she thinks it is being done for their own benefit, and not as a favor to network executives looking for ratings.  She is conscious of what is happening around her, but remains doe-eyed about the experience.

As the article progresses and Meister signs on for more and more shows, she becomes more critical.  Her time on MTV has helped her develop a more nuanced idea of how reality TV works, and her article accordingly becomes increasingly sophisticated.  She begins to speak unflinchingly of the exploitation of the genre, and the way that she and other cast members were mistreated.  Her language is precise and her examples clear; she speaks of how the experience of being on TV resembles being in a zoo with elegance and an awareness that the environment only seems real until you can see past your cage.

What’s interesting is that Meister does not end her article in righteous rage.  Instead, her language becomes softer and seems to be filled with doubt.  As terrible as some aspects of the show are, there’s something undeniably appealing about knowing that she is “still interesting and telegenic.” If there weren’t, she wouldn’t have done seven of these things.  She comments that she would like to break up with reality TV eventually, but implies through her reflective tone that she is still under its spell.  The end of Meister’s piece beautifully conveys the mixed feelings with which she regards reality TV.  Her writing captures that the genre is a beautiful beast, something that she knows she would be better off without but can’t seem to shake.  Her journey, both through MTV and through her article, are an emotional odyssey, forcing us to question how we would respond if placed in her situation.

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