On New Year’s Day 2013, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gene Weingarten carried an old green fedora into a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and asked three strangers to pluck a day, a month and a year out of the hat. They picked December 28, 1986.
Weingarten, a longtime feature writer for The Washington Post, spent the next six years researching what happened on that day. The result is a compelling new book, “One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America.”
That Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s – a day any journalist will tell you is the slowest news day of the slowest news week of the year – turned out to be full of comedy, tragedy, heroism and human drama. In chapters that chronicle the day from 12:01 a.m. to 11:55 p.m., Weingarten writes about a landmark heart transplant in Virginia, a tragic fire in Texas, a marital struggle in Arizona and a Grateful Dead concert in California.
The book is a glorified writing device, a gimmick, a stunt. Weingarten compares it to a “hammer and nail” assignment he used to give writers – having them pound a nail into a phone book and write a profile of whomever the nail stopped at. It’s part of the old journalism adage that there’s a story in everything, everyone, everywhere – and this book proves the point.
These portraits of American life are best read one at a time, savored as you would a lengthy newspaper or magazine article. There’s no real theme knitting the stories together, but the collection as a whole shows the power of great reporting and writing. The random date is “presented both microscopically and panoramically,” Weingarten writes in his introduction. “From deep within but also high above.” He hits the mark splendidly with this book, revealing the soul of a single day in America, with all its private dramas and remarkable moments. And it’s anything but ordinary.