This may be the best analogy in the history of journalism
Awarding Pulitzer Prizes to writers from the New Yorker has opened up a can of words.
Magazine writing is just different from its newspaper cousin. There are many reasons, of course, perhaps the greatest of which is the width of the columns. Wider columns inspire longer paragraphs, which can make magazine stories seem more discursive. There are many great short bits in magazines, but the stories tend to be longer, the leads indirect, the nut graphs turned into nut zones.
From this moment on, it will be tougher for newspaper feature writers and critics to compete with the nation’s best magazines, but that’s a good thing.
The prize for feature writing this year went to Kathryn Schulz, a writer whose work I did not know. Her New Yorker piece told us stories about earthquakes and tsunamis, past and future, and the science of measuring them. It is a remarkable work — a marriage of science journalism and literature — that evoked for me the prose of the great Rachel Carson in books such as “The Sea Around Us.”
I read Schulz’s work, “The Really Big One,” with the intent of examining her lead and comparing it to the lead paragraphs of the other winners. She did not earn one of my invisible awards for Best Pulitzer Prize Lead, but earns my praise in a more selective category: best analogy of all time.
The measurement of earthquakes on a Richter scale is not easy for me, an English major, to understand. I have learned that because the measurement is “logarithmic,” a quake that measures eight is not twice the power of one that measures four. It is many many times more powerful than that.
Even more difficult for this civilian to grasp are the tectonic forces below the surface of the earth that cause these effects. I have seen the movie “San Andreas” three times (I like The Rock!), but I can’t vouch for its scientific accuracy.
Then I ran into this passage:
Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle. Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone. Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America. When you try it, your right hand will slide up your left arm, as if you were pushing up your sleeve. That is what North America is not doing. It is stuck, wedged tight against the surface of the other plate.
Without moving your hands, curl your right knuckles up, so that they point toward the ceiling. Under pressure from Juan de Fuca, the stuck edge of North America is bulging upward and compressing eastward, at the rate of, respectively, three to four millimetres and thirty to forty millimetres a year. It can do so for quite some time, because, as continent stuff goes, it is young, made of rock that is still relatively elastic. (Rocks, like us, get stiffer as they age.) But it cannot do so indefinitely. There is a backstop—the craton, that ancient unbudgeable mass at the center of the continent—and, sooner or later, North America will rebound like a spring. If, on that occasion, only the southern part of the Cascadia subduction zone gives way—your first two fingers, say—the magnitude of the resulting quake will be somewhere between 8.0 and 8.6. That’s the big one. If the entire zone gives way at once, an event that seismologists call a full-margin rupture, the magnitude will be somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2. That’s the very big one.
I can’t express the depth of my appreciation for this passage. But I will try.
Let’s begin with a practical writer’s definition of an analogy. Although it is a comparison, like a metaphor or simile, it is one with an educational or informational intent rather than a literary one. It takes something that is strange to you (the length of a demilitarized zone or the size of the budget deficit) and compares it to something with which you are familiar.
Sadly, newspaper writers seemed to have been burdened with a limited analogic imagination, so that every length must be compared to that of a football field, and every dollar amount calculated by the distance to the moon and back.
But Schulz takes it one giant step forward. You are invited, in a sense, to act out the analogy, as I did after I read it. Using my palms, fingertips, and knuckles, my science learning became kinetic. This is brainy, crafty, engaging prose.
In 2007, it was my honor to be inducted into the Newspaper Features Hall of Fame. So I know newspaper feature writing, honor it and love the writers and editors who produce it. But I am telling you now, my brothers and sisters of the inky word, if your goal is a Pulitzer, it’s time to step up your game.
Correction: A previous version of this post referred incorrectly to the mathematical rules governing the Richter scale. It is logarithmic, not algorithmic.