Four Fantastic Columnists

Long before there were bloggers, there were columnists and essayists. Four of these writers had a particular influence on me and my writing: Isaac Asimov, Al Martinez, Andy Rooney, and Stephen Jay Gould.

As a youngster learning composition in school, the essay never much stirred me. It was taught rigidly, as if the rules of composing an essay were handed down along with the Commandment: five paragraphs, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and conclusion. It was less a way of writing and more a way of thinking. Outside of the classroom, I don’t think I’ve written a five paragraph essay in my life.

The first writer to teach me what an essay could be was Isaac Asimov. He wrote thousands of essays over the course of his life, but it was his science essays in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that had the most influence upon me. Over portions of five decades, Asimov had a monthly science essay in every issue of F&SF from the late 1950s through his death in 1992. These essays taught me more about science than I ever learned in school. They also taught me the power of the essay.

Asimov’s writing was clear and unadorned. But his essays carried his personality. Rather than reading an essay about, say, transfinite numbers, I felt like I was sitting in a room with Asimov, listening to him tell stories about his life, while somehow weaving in interesting facts and history about transfinite numbers along the way. His colloquial style had a big influence on me.

In high school I discovered Al Martinez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times whose writing I enjoyed. His columns covered all kinds of subjects, many serious, but leavened with humor. His style was very different than Asimov’s. His prose was more lyrical, but Martinez was also a reporter and the way he weaved his interviews with people into the essays always impressed me. It gave his subjects life beyond just the quotes that often appear in headline articles.

I can’t recall the first time I saw Andy Rooney on television, but I loved his TV spots. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered he wrote a syndicated column. His column read like his 60 Minutes spots, but was longer, and I enjoyed them more. Rooney’s style was much more like Asimov’s (the two were friends), with Rooney’s wit a little more biting and cynical. Andy Rooney taught me that it was possible to write about anything at all and make it interesting.

Most people know Stephen Jay Gould for his essays on paleontology and natural history. I came to Gould through a different path. Gould was an ardent baseball fan, and occasionally wrote articles, essays, and commentary on baseball for places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I adore baseball writing, and I’m particularly fond of writers like Tom Verducci, Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, and Red Smith. But it was through Gould that I learned that one could actually write about baseball. Gould was, like me, a lifelong Yankees fan, but you can tell in his writing that he was first and foremost, a baseball fan. What I loved most about Gould’s baseball writing was its complete lack of cynicism of the sport. When he wrote about baseball, he was an unabashed nine year old kid.

For me, Asimov and Martinez and Rooney and Gould are the all-stars of the essay form.