Reflections on readers

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The late Brad Jacobs, who consistently wrote the best local political commentary in Baltimore during his years as a columnist and editorial page editor for the Evening Sun, had some wry observations about the column-writing trade which over the years I've come to share.

First of all, he noted, a column often takes root and seems to have a life of its own, defying the best efforts of its author to control it. Sometimes this leads to trouble, but not always.


Occasionally the column, like a wise old pony, seems to find its own way out of the woods after the person who is supposed to be directing it has concluded that they're both hopelessly lost. When this occurs the columnist often gets complimented for his cleverness -- even though all he did was hold on for dear life and hope for the best.

Brad also liked to say that people who do columns for too long are likely to end up sounding as though they were writing parodies of themselves. He stopped doing his own column long before that happened to him.


Call these observations Jacobs Rule One and Jacobs Rule Two. They have both been on my mind lately, for each relates to the odd relationship between a columnist and the readers. As in a marriage, each side influences the other, sometimes perversely, and neither side likes to admit that.

But unlike most marriages, the relationship between the person who writes a column and the people who read it is pretty one-sided. The readers control it, for once they're gone the columnist is dead meat. He or she can fake it for a while, but the absence of readers is like the absence of oxygen. In a short time the results are fatal.

The readers, on the other hand, although they may love the columnist's work (or love to hate it, which is almost the same thing), don't actually need it. If the columnist goes away their lives don't change much.

So even the most independent columnist dances to the readers' tune, and listens carefully to determine what that tune might be. Letters, phone calls, e-mail, third-hand comments passed along by friends -- the columnists who last treat these with respect.

I remember the first letter I ever received as a Sun columnist. I hoped it was from somebody who would praise my insights, but expected an angry denunciation. It turned out to be from a stockbroker who had seen a new byline in the paper and wrote offering to help me with my "financial plan." I had no financial plan, except to try to stay ahead of the bills, and I never wrote back, which for all I know may have been one of my biggest mistakes in journalism.

But that letter was followed over the years by hundreds of more interesting ones. Some led to other columns, some helped open new perspectives on old subjects. Some began enduring personal friendships. Some were simply encouraging. A very small percentage were hostile or abusive. I answered almost every one personally, for I was grateful for them all.

Taken as a whole, reader response is the main reason why column writers -- or this column writer, anyway -- find the activity worthwhile. Without response, it's a Sisyphean task. The writer pushes his 800 words up the hill every few days; then they vanish like smoke on the wind, and he has to start again. But as long as someone notices, whether to applaud or throw fruit, the effort doesn't seem wasted.

Jacobs Rule Two suggests that even writers who are refueled and refreshed by response from readers can be at risk, for they can become predictable as to content and repetitive as to tone. They start to write the same sort of columns on the same sort of subjects, and after a while the freshness evaporates and the readers, except those who have been around so long they're almost like relatives, begin to drift away.


Around here, meaning up in Maryland's northeast corner where the Chesapeake Bay begins, there remain plenty of topics worth writing about -- from books to baseball, politics to poetry, schools to soybeans. More 800-word thoughts on a few of them will be hammered together shortly and pushed up the hill.

But, with August here, the ground is dry and dusty, and the brain's getting that way, too. So a little break is in order. This column will resume around the end of the month, if the readers remain and the creeks don't rise. Meanwhile, comments of all sorts are welcome as ever, by mail to Box 696, Havre de Grace, Md. 21078, or by e-mail to

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 8/03/97