Good writing is difficult to define, but you'll know it when you see it. It looks easy, but it's not. An effective essay has a central theme that is crisply expressed, with no extraneous words. An essay may be humorous, persuasive, powerful, moving, or all of the above. Gene Weingarten's "The Fiddler in the Subway" is a collection of twenty feature stories that originally appeared in the Washington Post. Weingarten is a reporter, editor, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who touches on a wide range of topics.
Weingarten starts off with a bang. "The Great Zucchini," is about "Washington's preeminent preschool entertainer." Zucchini commands big fees, but lives like a pauper. He has a magical ability to relate to children, partly because he is a big kid himself. He also harbors a shocking secret identity which is at odds with his public persona. Other notable chapters are: "The Armpit of America," about a Nevada town with little to boast about; "Snowbound," a visit to "a flyspeck island off the coast of Alaska"; "Doonesbury's War," in which Weingarten profiles cartoonist and political satirist Gary Trudeau; and "Fatal Distraction," about parents who inadvertently leave their small children in locked cars and forget about them. The final essay, "The Fiddler in the Subway," is about former child prodigy Joshua Bell, one of the world's premier violinists who, without fanfare, sets up shop in the Metro at L'Enfant Plaza. Will anyone notice that a renowned musician is playing for them?
The author's philosophy is that "a feature story will never be better than pedestrian unless it can use the subject at hand to address a more universal truth." He goes on to say that "it is not enough to observe and report. You must also think." Weingarten gives us much to ponder, including why some people stubbornly refuse to vote, the sick feeling that doting parents sometimes have when their grown children leave home, and whether it is really necessary to unearth every secret and scandal in the lives of famous people. "The Fiddler on the Subway" is an impressive, entertaining, and enlightening compilation by a man who has the ability to transform feature stories into works of art.