Now that the media has become a thicket of writers, each with his or her own wooden-soldier discipline, it's easy to forget that in the old days, journalists weren't so much required to have specialties as they were expected to become specialists (overnight, if necessary) in anything and everything. Now we have business reporters, entertainment reporters and religion reporters -- few of whom ever have to color outside their respective lines.
The truth is, good general-interest feature writing takes even more discipline than knowing everything there is to know about grain futures, and David Remnick's got it down. In this collection of pieces (most of which first appeared in The New Yorker), Remnick covers a range of subjects -- from a pair of dueling Shakespeare scholars to Michael Jordan, from a well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual figure like Mario Cuomo to a button-busting media big guy like Al Neuharth, creator of USA Today -- with fluidity and grace, skepticism and clear-eyed compassion. Remnick's pieces are burnished cross-hatchings of quotes and background, details and observations; he knows that a great general-interest story is anything but general.
The idea that Remnick can't be restricted to any sharply defined territory is what makes his book so liberating. He cross-pollinates ideas with obvious delight. (To explain the attitude retired ballplayers take toward young blood, he writes, "They can be grouchy, deliberately uncomprehending, like aging composers whining about the newfangled twelve-toned stuff.") One of Remnick's minor flaws is that sometimes he's too constrained by his innate classiness: In his 1987 piece on Neuharth, he comes off as a more-than-slightly-superior young buck newspaper reporter (he got his start at the Washington Post), calling USA Today a "bimbo" because of the way "it asks to be loved for its good looks and sunny personality." Yet in a short addendum to the piece, he acknowledges that, in light of the decline of so many big-city newspapers, USA Today doesn't look so bad after all. Without undercutting his original observations, he allows that the context for a subject can always shift. It's reassuring that Remnick can be counted on to be both trustworthy and entertaining. He doesn't need a beat: Whatever he's doing, you can always dance to it.