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  • Bill Schwab

"The Lede" | Reviewe by Bill Schwab

For six decades, Calvin Trillin has been one of the most popular, admired journalists in New York. He is renowned for being equally adept at writing serious-minded articles as well as “pieces meant to amuse.” Trillin covered the civil rights movement for Time, wrote comic verse for The Nation, and long-form narrative pieces for The New Yorker. “The Lede” is a compilation of 42 pieces of Trillin’s best work. Like many of his previous books, this one has a central theme: the news business.

Trillin has gathered many of his sharp, often hilarious articles about reporting, reporters, and other aspects of the trade. Some articles are from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the golden age of print journalism. These were the years when newsstands were overflowing with newspapers and magazines filled with articles written by such famous writers as Murray Kempton, the labor reporter for The New York Post, Molly Ivins, a political columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Edna Buchanan, the Miami Herald crime reporter.

In journalism, the “lede” is the introduction to a story. It is a sentence or paragraph meant to entice readers to continue reading. One lede Trillin especially likes is repeated early in the book as a template of what is to come: “A veterinarian prescribed antibiotics Monday for a camel that lives behind an Iberville Parish truck stop after a Florida woman told law officers she bit the 600-pound animal’s genitalia after it sat on her when she and her husband entered its enclosure to retrieve their deaf dog.” This lede raises some questions for readers, enticing them to continue. A sample question might be, “While the veterinarian was caring for the camel, was anyone attending to that Florida woman?”

Trillin wrote another lede to draw readers in after Times-Warner announced that Time magazine was to be “spun off—a phrase that to me has always conjured up a business enterprise caught in the final cycle of a giant washing machine, with desks and office machines flying through the air and middle-management types being blown away, head over heels, like so many tumbleweeds.” There are ledes of many reporters in the book, but I found Trillin’s to be the most original and engaging.

Trillin saves the best for last in a profound and poignant article about commemorating the Freedom Riders in the South in 1961. His writing marking the historic event exhibits the author’s unique skill of mixing wit, observation, and reporting.

  “The Lede” portrays the disappearing world of newspapers and magazines with no sentimentality. It reminds us how much has changed in the 60 years since Trillin began writing, how devalued newspapers have become, and how many famous writers have died. “The Lede” should be enjoyed by Trillin’s admirers, critics, and all who appreciate brilliant writing, clever humor, and captivating reporting.

About the Author: Trillin is an American journalist, humorist, food writer, poet, memoirist, and novelist. He is a Thurber Prize for American Humor winner and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “The Lede” is his 32nd book. He has been a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker.

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