Fascinating Features

Welcome to our new blogger Katie, who has lived in Portland most of her life and never thought her high school library job would evolve into a lifelong (hopefully!) career. She worked as a news writer and reporter in a previous life and especially appreciates efficient, powerful writing. She also loves music, documentaries, quirky characters, stories of triumph over adversity, dogs, and tap dancing.

Produce clear, concise copy - that was my task as a college intern in a radio news department. I spent several hours a day rewriting news wire content. Like many aspiring journalists, I dreamed of writing feature stories – genuine human interest pieces that allowed the freedom to tell a story or make a point in more than one to two paragraphs. These are the kinds of stories you will find in The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten.

Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and humor columnist for The Washington Post. The Fiddler in the Subway collects some of his best work into one not-to-be-missed volume. The book’s title comes from one of the pieces for which Weingarten won a Pulitzer. The idea behind the story was to conduct an experiment. Place a world-renowned violinist, Joshua Bell, in a busy Washington, D.C. subway station, with some loose change in his nearby violin case. How would passersby react? Would they recognize this top-notch musician in his jeans, t-shirt and baseball cap? More importantly, would they know and appreciate the quality and beauty of the music? The story reveals much about the power of context and the way in which people move through their busy lives, often oblivious to what is happening around them. Joshua Bell, who plays a Stradivarius violin worth more than three million dollars and fills concert halls the world over, made about $32 dollars that day. Of the 1,097 people who passed by Bell that January morning, seven of them stopped to listen for at least a minute.

Now, I suppose you could draw some doom-and-gloom conclusions about the state of humanity from this story. But Weingarten doesn’t do that at all. He doesn’t do that in any of his pieces. He simply observes the human condition in a variety of settings and circumstances, and writes about it, completely engaging and entertaining the reader along the way. Weingarten is a humor writer after all, and the way he describes many of his subjects will have you laughing out loud.  Take “The Great Zucchini,” the story of a much sought-after children’s entertainer who commands $300 per birthday party and does things like pour water on his head and eat toilet paper. What is it about this college dropout with no fancy costumes or props that has him booked solid months in advance? Weingarten is determined to find out, and he does, revealing a somewhat complicated but entirely human character who relates to children on their own level.

The Fiddler in the Subway offers many other gems, including the story of the ghost writer of the Hardy Boys novels, a profile of the intensely private cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and the search for the city most deserving of the official “Armpit of America” title. Weingarten’s diverse collection of well-written stories proves that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, and just as entertaining.

You can listen to Joshua Bell playing Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” one of the pieces he played in the subway station, on his Voice of the Violin CD. You can also download Joshua Bell’s music through Freegal, a free music service available to library card holders.