Commentary

Snow: A new year’s fireside chat with readers

asnow@newsobserver.comJanuary 11, 2014 

A belated thanks to those of you who sent me good wishes during the holiday season.

As I have noted here previously, responsive readers are a columnist’s reason for being.

Readers not only inspire, encourage and sometimes stroke the writer’s ego. Their candor can also keep a columnist humble.

Consider a recent e-mail from the Rev. Milton Lewis of San Antonio, Texas.

“My good friend, Bob Peffers, with N.C. connections, clips and mails your columns to me regularly,” he wrote. “They are a source of enjoyment, delight, identification, quiet smiles, and ever so often, insight. But sometimes a stack of them sits on my kitchen counter for weeks, as I don’t have or take time to read them.

“After internal moral debate, I toss them into the recycle. As one who grew up Baptist, I feel some guilt, from tossing my friend’s gift, but more from regret that I may be missing out on some life affirmation or lesson. In any event, it is only a short-lived twinge, as I am now a Methodist.”

His message reminded me of another humbling incident.

I was attending a funeral at a Raleigh church, walking up the front steps with Betty Lou Ward, veteran Wake County Commissioner. She complimented me on the most recent column.

I thanked her but added, “I really didn’t do a very good job with that one. It was one of those ‘throw away’ columns.”

“Yeah, I agree, and I throwed it away,” a stranger behind us said gruffly.

Then there was the Oregon lumberjack who, after receiving a copy of “A Dust of Snow,” The N&O’s first collection of these columns, wrote this brief postcard message: “Mr. Snow, I enjoy the articles my Mom sent me. I read one every morning while I’m on the john.”

A Chapel Hill reader on a Sunday morning appraised that day’s column thusly: “After downing two Bloody Marys, I’ve just read your column. Not bad.”

Bette Elliott, the late woman’s editor of the now-expired Raleigh Times, once wrote that writing a personal column is like undressing in public.

When I mentioned her comment, a friend quipped, “Please don’t do that, A.C. We just couldn’t take it.”

Critics? Of course. They come with the job. Some come on gently, almost apologetically. Not so with others.

Not long ago, after I absentmindedly attributed some lines of poetry to the wrong author, a reader gleefully pointed out the flaw.

“My husband once told me that my greatest joy in life is finding errors in other people’s work,” she admitted. She’s not alone.

A few weeks ago, an irate reader verbally flayed me unmercifully, concluding with, “Why don’t you get lost? I’m through. I’ll never read another column of yours as long as I live!”

I quickly responded, urging him to forgo the columns so as to avoid risking an unsafe rise in his blood pressure.

A few hours later, he wrote back, apologizing and asking, “And what are you writing about next Sunday?”

Newspapers are especially vulnerable to criticism. Unlike TV and radio commentators whose miscues instantly vanish on the desert air, a journalist’s sins are as ancient poet Omar Khayyám observed:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

Still, I think it’s amazing that so few errors are found among the jillions of words that appear in your daily newspaper, much of which was written under deadline pressure. Yet we take our errors seriously and follow them with a published correction.

So, my readers, as we look down the New Year together, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words to her husband, Robert, come to mind: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

I like your loyalty over the years. I like your varying responses, the sharing of tidbits of your own lives, your sense of humor, your compassion for your fellow beings, your sometime testiness, your lighthearted spirits.

Peace be unto you.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or asnow@newsobserver.com

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