Reader Mail -- V. S. Naipaul, Sports, Etc.

V. S. Naipaul upon his arrival in Stockholm, December 6, 2001. He had traveled to Sweden to pick up the Nobel prize. (Maja Suslin / TT News Agency via Reuters)

Impromptus today is a potpourri, as the column was born to be. You have some politics, some sports, some arts, etc. If you don’t like one item, you may have better luck with the next.

I would like to publish two pieces of reader mail, on different subjects. The first responds to my piece “Right Words: On how to write, and what to read.”


I saw you mentioned V. S. Naipaul. I just completed a three-year tour doing counter-WMD work for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). I have an old friend who is a longtime Africa-focused intel analyst. When I was preparing to take the job, I asked him what I should read to familiarize myself with Africa.

He sent me a list of dozens of nonfiction books — and one novel, A Bend in the River. I found it insufferably boring at first but suddenly couldn’t put it down. I now believe it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it does really teach you a lot about Africa while fooling you into thinking you’re reading a boring story about a guy slowly running his shop into the ground.

It’s also one of those books that make me want to give up my dream of being a writer, because I don’t think I can ever hope to be remotely as good. It’s a near-perfect book. Naipaul is blindingly good.

He is, but listen: Don’t give up. (I’m speaking to everyone.) The point is to write like you, not like Naipaul. The point is to be your best self, not any version of anyone else. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, or the Naipauls. You are uniquely you.

I sound like a kindergarten teacher, but kindergarten teachers can be very wise, you know.

Before I leave the subject of Naipaul, I would like to cite a very, very interesting criticism of him, by a former editor of mine. In fact, it must be the most unusual criticism of a writer I’ve ever heard: “He writes too limpid a prose. It’s too perfect.”

Okay, the second letter, speaking of sports (which I do in my column today). This is a letter easy to mock — “beards and tattoos”! But I found it touching.

Hello, Mr. Nordlinger,

I’m no longer interested in sports, but I’m not boycotting them. I do not encourage a boycott, especially among young people.

Sports meant so much to me when I was young. They improved my vocabulary and helped me in my math and geography studies.

How do I know the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers combine to form the Ohio River? Because of Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. (My dad told me.)

Now when I watch baseball (my last sports love), all I see is beards and tattoos. I guess the times have passed me by.

Your discouraged friend . . .

May the mood lift. As for the “times,” whatever they are: I often quote Miss Julia Coleman, who was often quoted by Jimmy Carter, her most famous student: “We must adapt to changing times with unchanging principles.”

P.S. Did you notice my two colons in the above sentence? In a Corner post last week, I wrote this:

Occasionally, I’ll write a long sentence that includes more than one colon — more than one pause, represented by colons. Can you do that? Some people around me wondered.

About this time, I was reading some Naipaul — Miguel Street, I believe — and saw that he does this freely. That was good enough for me.

It is.

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