Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Lac Bug Meets the Writing Bug

Newspapers, obituaries and book reviews are enough to sustain life.

Anytime I'm doing a household project that requires me to spread out some sheets of old newspaper for an improvised drop cloth, I usually start scanning the headlines again. And when I do this I think of Russell Baker and something he once wrote that anytime he's spreading out newspapers for a similar project he finds himself once again catching up on the news.

So, that's one writer that's followed me into the garage. And now there's another. William Zinsser.

There is a product I've used that's a stain blocking primer. White can, has a two ring red target with a black bull's-eye in the middle. The Zinsser name is italicized for emphasis and the 'R' slightly overlaps the target a bit. In smaller print, also italicized, underneath the name we're told 'Quality Since 1849.' It is good stuff.

The WSJ has great book reviews. They're always in the same spot in the first section, and always have their own format and same length. In yesterdays' edition there was a review of what sounds like a collection of essays by William Zinsser. The book, 'The Writer Who Stayed' is fairly thin at 175 pages, but attractively priced at only $14.95.

WSJ book reviews can be as much about the author or the era they're writing about as they are about the book itself. Novels are not frequently reviewed. Thus, history is usually imparted.

The reviewer, Edwin M. Yoder Jr., sounds like he's a kindred spirit to the author, as well as contemporary. And that contemporary occupies a John Cheever, Guy Talese era of men wearing hats, and the men's grille at Schrafft's.

The history part comes in when it is revealed that Mr. Zinsser, a life-long New Yorker, is the great-grandson of a German merchant of the 1840s who started a prosperous shellac business. The business is not now operated by the family, but the name prevails.

I'm quite familiar with shellac. I've mixed my own from orange flakes with denatured alcohol for wood finishes. My father seemed as in love with shellac for use as a household painting primer as he was in love with olive oil for his skin and diet. We don't know that he ever mixed them up. I know shellac well.

The book review lets us in on more shellac history: it's origin from the lac bug, found in India; it's industrial and pharmaceutical uses. Most of these I am familiar with, but I am, like the reviewer, not familiar with Mr. Zinsser, who after returning from WWII turned away from learning and running the family business and instead went to work for the Herald Tribune.

There are two things I moan about when I think of what I miss in New York City. One is the old Penn Station. I'm hardly alone there, but our numbers are dwindling. The second thing I miss is the Herald Tribune: a broadsheet of news, sports, comics, and editorial cartoons. As complete a newspaper as ever existed. I'm not alone here either. Mr. Yoder expresses a pang of loss as well, as I'm sure Mr. Zinsser does.

Without too much surprise, it is learned that Mr. Zinsser will be 91 this year. He admires Joseph Mitchel, and apparently his writing even resembles it in subject matter. The review is an unqualified recommendation to read the book. And as soon as I can get to the bookstore after last night's snowstorm, I plan to do just that.

And the next time I'm in the garage whipping up a shellac mixture, readying a can of oil-based primer for needed cover, or spreading out newspapers out for the project, I will now have two writers to think about and remember.


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