The Top 25 Writers: 25-21

Twenty-five people or groups. Twenty-five of my favorites. Of my most revered. These twenty-five entities would make up my dream cocktail party. They would write the story of my life in twenty-five brilliant chapters.

They have taught me how to read, to write, and to understand the power of the written word.

So let’s count them down, right?

25. Jon Stewart
Personal Defining Work: The Daily Show
Being funny and being right are usually two different streets. On The Daily Show, they converge. Jon Stewart – a forgotten talent who starred in a series of bombs before being asked to take over Craig Kilborn’s show on Comedy Central – is quietly re-writing the rules of broadcast journalism by stomping all over them. Stewart (and a band of writers who I’m too lazy to look up and write here) has created a new form of satire – the news looked at by sarcastic and clear-minded people who are tired of the same bland, safe news broadcast. People take him seriously, which is both good and bad. Good because he’s right on target. Bad because it gives talking heads more ammo for calling The Daily Show a “dumbing down of America.” Oh well – if Jon Stewart is considered “dumbing down,” then I guess I can handle it.

24. Thomas Malory
Personal Defining Work: Le Morte d’Arthur
For years I studied Arthurian legend. I soaked it up. I read about it all the time. I bought encyclopedias and reference guides. I loved it – the historical aspects of England in the Dark Ages, the thought of chivalry, and the thousands of stories that all intertwined. The characters were a hair above believable – fantasy, yet still human. And while I latched onto the legend through T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, it was through Thomas Mallory – and by extension, Carl Swanson’s British Literature class at Lincoln High School – that really drove me over the edge. I mean, here it was – the original legend, spelled out in its most basic form. I read it all, numerous times. I even bought the non-translated set. I mean, this isn’t just geeky swords and serpents stuff – this is a brilliant story with hundreds of morals. I love it, even if they can’t make a decent movie out of it.

23. Christopher Guest
Personal Defining Work: This is Spinal Tap
Christopher Guest writes screenplays. And then he directs them, telling the characters to ad-lib most of their lines. Can we really call this writing? I can – the stories the Guest devises under the “mock-umentary” guise are nearly as fascinating as anything a typical “follow the script exactly” director can muster. I mean, we’re talking about the backstage drama of a dog show (Best in Show) and the trials and tribulations of a folk reunion (A Mighty Wind). It’s about taking usually conventional things and making fun of them in a way that’s simple. Subtle, even. And regardless of whether he writes every single word that’s expressed on the screen, he’s able to work with words in a way that elicits the responses he wants. And that could be harder than writing it word for word anyway.

22. Hunter S. Thompson
Personal Defining Work: Hey Rube
Whether he was gambling or taking semi-illegal drugs, Thompson was always thinking. That was apparent in all of his books, and especially in all of his magazine articles. He invented the genre, after all, of putting yourself into the story, of taking a situation worth of news coverage and turning it on its ear with an ether-soaked rag. His political coverage made you realize just how moronic a candidate could be, while his sports columns gave an odd gleam to the idea of losing money at the horse races. Throughout it all, he stayed close to the ground. He didn’t let his fame overtake his biting wit. And that’s why we could all take him so seriously, even if he was dropping a frozen animal heart on Jack Nicholson’s front step.

21. Paul Theroux
Personal Defining Work: Kingdom by the Sea
Theroux served as stage two of my travel writing phase. And through Theroux, I realized that, when traveling, the most important things to pay attention to aren’t the monuments, churches, and shows, but the people. The people make travel worthwhile. Theroux built his writing career by examining every person he met. Every fellow traveler fell under his scrutiny. Every train conductor, vendor, and inn-keeper. In his walk around England, he didn’t just write about the landscape – he wrote about people, their reaction to the war in the Falklands, and their comments about the Queen’s simultaneous trip around the island. As far as travel writing goes, I’ll admit I started with Bill Bryson. But I grew with Theroux.

This was lovingly handwritten on September 18th, 2006