David Halberstam: A Real WriterDavid Halberstam was a real writer. Halberstam, who died on Monday as a result of injuries that he suffered in a car accident, was a real writer not because he won a Pulitzer Prize or because his books sold a lot of copies; awards are often given out as a result of popularity and great sales numbers do not prove (or disprove) the quality of a creative work. No, David Halberstam was a real writer because he loved and mastered the craft of writing. This love and mastery are clearly demonstrated in the work that Halberstam produced, work that covered an amazing array of subjects ranging from the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement to the 1949 American League pennant race to Bill Belichick to a Portland Trailblazers season that he described in perhaps the greatest book ever written about the NBA: The Breaks of the Game.
Real writers are able to elicit interesting quotes from their interview subjects because they ask the right questions and listen carefully to what they are told. I was a 10 year old kid when The Breaks of the Game was published and I was thrilled to read such an in-depth look at NBA basketball, my favorite sport. Halberstam interviewed a staggering number of players, coaches, broadcasters and others, so he obviously could not include everything that he heard--but a real writer knows how to include quotes that move the story forward by telling you something about the speaker and something about the topic at hand. On page 251 of The Breaks of the Game, Steve Jones talks about Marvin Barnes: "Saddest story in basketball. Most talented player I ever saw come into the game. He's blown it all and it's all gone, but I never saw a better player than Marvin Barnes when he came in the league. As quick as Walter Davis. The rebounding instincts, timing and strength of Moses Malone. Could shoot like Marques Johnson. Marvin broke every rule there was, sometimes I think he studied the rules just so he could break them." Halberstam then described the quick rise and equally quick fall of Barnes, concluding with this quote from Jones: "The Man gives you one chance at it in this game. You can't waste it. You can't be black and waste anything. Not a damn thing." I was struck not only by Barnes' story but by the way that Halberstam told it, supplementing the factual details of Barnes' career with the haunting, piercing quotes from Jones, a player turned broadcaster who currently can be seen on NBA TV. I never forgot those quotes: "He's blown it all and it's all gone" and "You can't be black and waste anything."
Real writers have an ear for language just like great composers have an ear for music. Here is Halberstam's description of Bobby Gross' thoughts about Julius Erving (p. 355, The Breaks of the Game): "But it was not just the leaping ability. It was The Doctor's hands. They were huge and yet surprisingly delicate, with extremely long fingers. It was odd, Gross suspected, for a player to be so fascinated with another player's hands, but Julius Erving had beautiful hands. They allowed him to hold the ball lightly and yet still control it, to do tricks with the ball, to drive past the basket and then at the last minute to score by putting all sorts of spins and reverse spins on the ball in ways denied mere mortals with mortal hands. Gross, in comparison with most American males, had huge hands but even they forced certain limits on his game. He could not dunk without holding the ball tightly; otherwise he might lose control of it. That alone denied him many of the angles available to Erving."
Real writers can write about any subject because they understand that before committing even one word to paper they must first research their subject and thoroughly understand it. That is why Halberstam was able to write with such depth and feeling about so many subjects--he did the "grunt" work. Too many writers don't get their facts straight before spouting their opinions.
Not everybody thinks that he can be a surgeon or an astrophysicist--but everybody thinks that he can write. If you doubt this, just surf the internet for a few minutes: more people are publishing their writing than at any time in history. Unfortunately, most of this writing is poorly done. David Halberstam's work was great not because of where it was published or the awards it received but because he pursued his craft the right way. Halberstam had an unquenchable thirst to understand the true nature of things and to communicate that understanding to his readers. That is why, at the age of 73, Halberstam was not resting on his laurels but was on his way to do an interview for his newest book when fate intervened.
David Halberstam lived a full life but he died before his time. The best tribute that can be made to him is to understand that real writing is precious and hard to find. Seek it out--and accept no substitutes.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:49 PM