Who’s the Best Writer You Know?

By that I don’t mean you have actually made their acquaintance. But that’s the thing about our favorite writers, isn’t it? We really do feel that we know them. And we’d give just about anything to sit and talk with them for an hour … even for a few minutes.

I have several writers whom I particularly enjoy. They write about interesting topics; they have insightful views; or they make me laugh or reduce me to tears. But there’s really only one who just stuns me with his miraculous ability to just write … to select exactly the right word to complete exactly the right phrase to convey exactly what he wants to say. 

The best writer I know is Roger Angell. On Sunday, he was given the most prestigious award the Baseball Hall of Fame can bestow. And here’s what’s so unusual about this: Roger Angell writes just one baseball story a year. It runs in The New Yorker magazine sometime during the winter. It’s a review of the past baseball season and some thoughts on the coming campaign, and devoted baseball fans everywhere, those who truly appreciate the endlessly fascinating complexities of the game, wait for it impatiently and they savor every word.

It takes a while to read one of Angell’s baseball pieces. They’e long and you frequently stop and marvel at his insights to the game. And even more often, you stop on a paragraph or phrase that is so absolutely perfect that you read it again and you think to yourself, “Goddammit, if I’d written that, I could die a happy man!” 

And then you look up and call your wife and say, “Honey, I’ve got to read you something.” She knows nothing about baseball, but when you finish, she looks at you for several seconds, then says, “Wow!”

So here’s just one paragraph from a Roger Angell piece that appeared this past February in The New Yorker. It’s called This Old Man and it’s about old age … his old age. Because Roger Angell is now 93 years old. 
. . . I’ve not yet forgotten Keats or Dick Cheney or what’s waiting for me at the dry cleaner’s today. As of right now, I’m not Christopher Hitchens or Tony Judt or Nora Ephron; I’m not dead and not yet mindless in a reliable upstate facility. Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical!”