Books

Review: Gene Weingarten's story collection that is a must read

A good reporter, Gene Weingarten believes, should be able to find a story anywhere.

Weingarten, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner as a Washington Post feature writer, hasn’t hesitated to test that thesis. As an editor, he once sent four reporters off in four directions, with instructions to go no farther than seven blocks and bring back a good story.

Another time, he invited five writers to each hammer a nail into a phone book and write a profile of whoever’s name was where the nail stopped.

So it’s no surprise that Weingarten decided to put himself to a similar task. He asked three strangers to draw a month, a day and a year from a hat. For whichever day was randomly selected — it turned out to be Dec. 28, 1986 — Weingarten would report on the events of that day, finding “embedded in microcosm all of the grand themes in what hacks and academics tend to call The Human Experience,” as he notes in the introduction.

And his book, a collection of about 20 stories drawn from that day, is a helluva good look at The Human Experience. Over the course of five years, Weingarten conducted more than 500 interviews, delving deeply into the lives of dozens of people. His stories are by turns sweet, rueful, horrifying and impossibly serendipitous.

He found tragedies that turned to triumph — and others that remained tragic. He traced small occurrences with big consequences. From coast to coast, from hospital operating rooms to lonely woodlands, Weingarten captured the thoughts, emotions and motivations beyond the events that wound up in TV segments or newspaper articles.

Weingarten freely acknowledges that his book is a stunt, a conceit. America is a big country, and it’s not surprising that a great reporter, given five years, could run down a double handful of good stories from among the 300 million or so people who lived through that day.

There’s no real theme tying his stories together; the book reads like one of those compilations popular with journalists in the pre-Internet era, with titles like “The Best Newswriting of 1986.”

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But those books were good reads, and this one is, too. You’ll find it a collection of ripping yarns. That they don’t knit together into a whole doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of reading a master storyteller.

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