April 28, 2012

A small affirmation

One thing I've been meaning to do - and still plan to do some day - is put up a proper post on Road & Track columnist Peter Egan.  When the magazine comes in the mail I always turn first to Egan's column.  It is, invariably, a pitch-perfect excursion into an interesting light topic, with a beginning and end, and a lot of good decoration along the way.

You could accurately describe him as the finest living American automotive essayist, but that would be leaving it pretty low.  Automotive journalism isn't known for producing fine prose stylists (LJK Setright nowithstanding), so however well-intentioned, the praise rings a bit hollow.  It doesn't help that Egan is almost pathologically self-deprecating:
Who can turn down a spare bent race car frame? Hardly anyone with an ounce of sense. And, to paraphrase Chet Atkins, I have more sense than most people have in their little finger.  (link)
But you don't have to read much Egan to appreciate how dishonest these little asides are.  He dropped out of college and he doesn't write about Mannerism or the Will to Power (not on purpose, anyway), but his work is detailed and carefully made - so much so that it is difficult to name anyone around I think is better.

In "The TR-3 That Was Lee’s" the subject is ostensibly a Triumph sports car, but Egan also supplies a memory photograph of his late friend:
We deposited the TR-3 in their new two-car garage, which was already half full of lawn equipment, so there was once again no room to park either of their family cars indoors. 
“You know, Lee,” I said, “you might think about selling this thing for parts. Chances are it’ll never run again.” 
Lee didn’t say anything, but just looked at me with a sad, doubtful expression, and I felt I’d somehow overstepped the bounds of friendly advice. He was a sentimental person who attached considerable importance to the symbolic objects in his life.

On rare occasions he will raise his voice, as in this column written during the depths of the Great Recession:
Poor Darwin. The cold of heart have always forced a sociological spin on his biological work — from Spencer all the way through Hitler and Stalin — as if humans had no more free will or moral stature than trilobites or the lizards of the Galápagos Islands. Natural selection is a great excuse to ignore those who have not so richly deserved to succeed as you and I. And I'm not so sure about you...
To steal a line from Dylan Thomas, the worst thing to do to Egan would be to select from his works enthusiastically.  It is best to read him indiscriminately.  He is one of the finest columnists, of any stripe, of his generation, and spending a few minutes a month with Side Glances is, like my morning coffee, a small civilization-affirming ritual.

He has been writing since at least the early 80s, so there is plenty to read.  Many of Egan's columns of the past 10 years are here, and a collection of his essays from 2002-06 is available here.


Blogger The Sum of All Monkeys said...

I'm sorry, but the greatest motor-enthusiast essayist is Cycle World's Peter Egan. Famous for his monthly Leanings column.

May 5, 2012 at 10:00 AM  

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