Stephen Baker

The Boost
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NYT: Lurid writing about Africa

December 16, 2012General

When I used to write for BusinessWeek, my wife would ask me how the editing of a story was going. I'd usually say, "One of my jokes survived." Sometimes it was two, or none. By "jokes," I meant the little metaphors or turns of phrase that tickled me. These are a big motivator for me to write. And one reason I prefer writing books to journalism is that more of my jokes make it through the process.

Well, I just read a piece of journalism today, in the New York Times, in which every single joke not only made it, but was enshrined. The story is about the Congo's Never-Ending War, by Jeffrey Gettleman. Some people might object to the writing, because it does call attention to itself. But I marveled. This guy got his jokes in, and they're fabulous! Of course, jokes is hardly the word for them, because he's describing horrors. Still, it's worth a read. Consider just this fragment of a paragraph:

Congo is estimated to possess $24 trillion of mineral resources. Its soil is so productive that a trip through the countryside, past all the banana, orange, papaya, guava and mango trees virtually scraping the windshield, is like driving through a fruit salad. But without any functioning infrastructure, all this agricultural potential is moot. “How will you get anything to the market?” one local official asked me. “There’s only so much you can carry on your head.”

My only complaint is this sentence: In poor, downtrodden countries accustomed to sordid rule, there is something incredibly empowering about the simple act of scratching an X next to the candidate of your choice and having a reasonable hope that your vote will be counted.

The word "incredibly" adds nothing, and I don't like the word "empowering," though I certainly support what it means.

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