Culture > Books

Books: More than pundits

Books | Two contemporary writers show that an old-fashioned brand of journalistic commentary is not dead yet

Issue: "The politics of grace," April 25, 1998

Aspiring journalists, pundits, essayists, wits, wags, and curmudgeons take note: The art of extemporaneous writing is not entirely extinct. At least not as long as Michael Coren and Paul Johnson are still writing. Though they rarely grace the pages of American publications, they remain among the very best exemplars of the once thriving trade pioneered by Samuel Johnson, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Ralph Waldo Emerson, G.K. Chesterton, and H.L. Mencken. Thankfully, their work has now been anthologized in two marvelous books-available in this country over the Internet from their Canadian and British publishers. Michael Coren is the highly regarded literary biographer of such luminaries as C.S. Lewis, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, and G.K. Chesterton. He is also the host of one of Canada's most influential and controversial radio talk shows. But perhaps his best work has appeared over the last decade in the Canadian newspapers Financial Post, Globe and Mail, and The Sun. In this wide-ranging collection of his best columns and essays, Setting It Right, he tackles every conceivable subject from politics, the arts, and morality to history, religion, and the family. His perspective is a refreshing departure from the typical journalistic fare. Mr. Coren's Christian worldview perspective on current events is anything but politically correct. His take on homosexual rights, abortion, multiculturalism, AIDS, family values, and prostitution is never a kind of knee-jerk conservatism. It is historically astute, intellectually honest, and spiritually uplifting. In short, Mr. Coren does what a good essayist is supposed to do: make his readers think and feel and act according to what is right and good and true. Paul Johnson is the dean of journalistic essayists. Best known as the popular historian and author of such works as Modern Times, Intellectuals, The Birth of the Modern, and most recently the gargantuan History of the American People, he has also maintained a weekly column in the English Spectator magazine for more than a decade. Any reader who has ever wondered how Paul Johnson the historian could possibly know so much about so many fields-weaving art, technology, politics, military strategy, theology, architecture, psychology, music, and sociology into a single coherent narrative-will be even more astonished at the range of Paul Johnson the essayist. Whether writing about supermarkets or the slave trade, Christmas cards or capitalism, Zionism or Zimbabwe, the Knights of Malta or the captains of the software industry, Mr. Johnson draws on his incomparable acquaintance with people, places, and events to inform as effortlessly as he entertains. This selection of his Spectator columns is a veritable workshop on how to write a brilliantly varied column. Indeed, the introductory essay, "How to write a column," is worth the price of the book. If it were required reading in our journalism schools, perhaps we would be forced to endure far less humbug than we are today. Hilaire Belloc once quipped, "If a good man is hard to find, locating a good journalist is sure to be next to impossible." I am grateful to have located, with some difficulty, Michael Coren and Paul Johnson. I'll warrant you will be too.

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