This is a secret, so don't tell anyone: The most read page in a newspaper is not Page 1. It's not the sports page or the editorial page.
At least among readers above the age of 50, it's almost always the obituary page. We want to know who has died.
With that overture, let me pass along a rule that has worked at least since Antony mourned the death of Caesar. This is it: If you would move your readers to tears, do not let them see you cry. The key to a successful obituary is restraint.
That maxim came back to mind a few days ago. The Washington Post carried a piece on its op-ed page by columnist Jim Hoagland. It was captioned “Requiem for a Terrier.” It began almost casually:
“My wife belongs to a school of thought that counsels against watching politicians debate on television. ‘It only encourages them,' she fears. So for company during the final McCain-Obama face-off, I turned to Coco, who nestled with me on the family sofa.”
Hoagland explained: “Coco is our 12-year-old West Highland white terrier who – like Westies everywhere – mirrors faithfully her owner's sentiments and moods.
Feeling playful? Secretly wishing to roll around on the grass and have your tummy scratched? Westie Central Intelligence will pick that up and herd you to the park pronto.
But if a book and a fireplace top your needs, a softly breathing white ball of fluff will curl contentedly at your feet for hours …”
Together, the dog and her master watched the debate. Ordinarily, Hoagland would have made notes for a column on the presidential contest. On this night his priorities shifted.
“It was a time to think of Westies and of pet owners everywhere and for my family especially to think of Coco, who died in my arms a few hours after the debate ended.”
Tap into universal experiences
Why am I weeping as I read Hoagland's column? Because I too have buried beloved animals – a dachshund named Frieda, a collie named Lorenzo de Medici of White Walnut Hill. The Post columnist was coping with a universal experience. When a loved human dies, may all of us write as lovingly.
Changing the subject abruptly: The Wall Street Journal recently sent out a letter from managing editor Robert Thomson, promoting its new magazine. The supplement will be “quite unique.”
Aaarrgh! “Unique” is one of those adjectives that do not take kindly to modification by degree. The infant magazine cannot be quite unique any more than Caesar can be quite dead, or a glass very empty, or a mile remarkably long.
Changing the subject again: Every Sunday The Washington Post carries a column in its “Book World” by poet Mary Karr. Two weeks ago she heaped praise upon poet Roger Fanning for a poem called “Hospital Sidewalk.”
Its first four lines provide a fair sample of the work:
In this hospital they itemize the cost
of a person's deathbed down to the last aspirin.
They charge twenty-five dollars for fake lamb's wool
on which, after surgery, patients bleed.
Gripping? No, pedestrian
Look: Nobody insists that all poetry must rhyme or that every line of every poem must be cadenced. Free verse has had its fans for a hundred years.
In the example at hand, Ms. Kerr found that a poet had fathered a “gem.” She found Fanning's wizardry “adroit.”
After a dozen readings, this piece of free verse still strikes me as nothing more than pedestrian prose, casually arranged by some traveling typographer.
Is it poetry? O tempora, O mores, O baloney!