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The Best of the Rest: Non-Syndicated Newspaper Columnists Select Their Best Work.

The Best of the Rest: NonSyndicated Newspaper Columnists Select Their Best Work Edited by Sam G. Riley Greenwood Press 341 pages; $49.95

By Carl Sessions Stepp Sam Riley has come up with a wonderful idea for a book, and perhaps for a whole lot more.

Riley, a Virginia Tech communication professor, has collected samples by 77 non-syndicated columnists from papers high and low, dealing with the kinds of outside-the-Beltway themes that America strums to. The range is immense, from okra to the death penalty, a bridge named Bob to sexual harassment. He has tear-jerkers, knee slappers, tall tales and, naturally, a few teeth grinders too.

Many columnists share intimate personal meditations: Brian Ojampa (Mankato, Minnesota, Free Press) on his son's growing up, Mark Patinkin (Providence Journal-Bulletin) on his parents' storybook courtship, Rheta Grimsley Johnson (Memphis Commercial Appeal) on her stroke-stricken grandmother.

Others find lessons in local slicesof-life: Lynn Bartels (Albuquerque Tribune) on the county fair's sewing competition, Cathy Mauk (Fargo, North Dakota, Forum) on the closing of a quaint curiosity shop, Roddy Stinson (San Antonio Express-News) on a man driving along an expressway flourishing a baton at an imaginary orchestra.

Several issue public scoldings: Don Bishoff (Eugene, Oregon, RegisterGuard) to the-trains that dump their waste along the tracks, Jim Fitzgerald (Detroit Free Press) to fancy restaurants that refuse to provide separate checks. Some detour deep into whimsy: T.J. Gilles (Great Falls, Montana, Tribune) provides his own entertainingly aggrandized obituary.

Many, many just charm us with lovely writing, like Jack Smith (Los Angeles Times) who composes a lyrical parable on heating Handel's Messiah in a peaceful college chapel:

A girl with a sweet soprano voice and pale gold hair down to her shoulders sang a solo of rejoicing, holding her book high, her elbows out, swaying slightly with the rhythm of the hymn, and for a moment it was hard not to believe in angels.

All in all, the book is inspirational and instructive (if stiffly priced). As a bonus, it also plants the idea that more column-type writing could help revive sagging readership.

In a useful introduction on the history and role of columns, Riley praises their humanity, wit and literary freedom.

"All three are qualities that most newspapers could use more of," he adds, especially "at this time, when newspaper publishers, in their dark suits and wing-tip shoes, well dressed but nervous, are employing consultants to tell them how better to compete with television and how to woo a public that, increasingly, seems to regard the act of reading as a form of social punishment to be escaped as soon as one finishes school...."

Unlike the studiedly clinical copy that speaks in a monotone across many front pages, columns have voice and personality. They reflect time and place. They flow from one human being to another. And they prove that short essays can tell power-packed stories. It's no accident that when readers are asked who their favorite newspaper writers are, they tend to name columnists.

Given its virtues, can the column form make a broader contribution? Certainly, columns can add dimension to papers heavy with middle-aged, white male writers and sources. They can expand the monotone to a chorus, incorporating voices of women, young people, members of minority groups and others with special accents.

In addition, columns could increasingly help explain the complexities of business, science, international affairs and other news. This is hardly new; consider the impact of Ernie Pyle's folksy but informative World War II dispatches. Again today in the information age, their agreeableness, accessibility and conversational directness make columns a powerful communication tool.

Riley, a part time columnist himself, doesn't push the matter quite this far. Mostly, he just shows off some fine work, and that is treat enough.

Stepp, an AJR senior editor, teaches at the University of Maryland College of Journalism.
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Author:Stepp, Carl Sessions
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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