Memories of the Christian Science Monitor

Last month the Christian Science Monitor announced that it would shut down its daily print edition in April 2009. From then on, it will exist as a pure Web-only newspaper, the first national newspaper to take such a drastic step in the e-future. Friends and colleagues who knew I used to be the paper's book critic dropped by and sent notes of condolences. After all, everybody loves the Christian Science Monitor, even if nobody subscribes.

For me, it was a sad day, though I know it's merely an acknowledgement of the facts on the ground: The Monitor has been essentially a Web-only newspaper for years. The money saved by cutting loose its remaining 50,000 print readers (like me) will be better used to supply stories to millions of people around the world who want what the Monitor has to offer: serious international reporting at a time when almost every other newspaper is cutting or closing foreign bureaus.

I spent seven wonderful years working at the Monitor's offices in Boston. Contrary to what some people assume, the Christian Science Church, which spends a huge chunk of its annual budget on the paper, rarely interferes with its coverage. Oh sure, once or twice I ran into the red pen of orthodoxy from the copy desk, staffed at the time by two eagle-eyed grammarians both named Ruth, but they were usually no more restrictive than the copy editors here at the Post. One silly exception: Because devout Christian Scientists avoid caffeine, my use of the phrase "coffee-house radical" was once reduced to "radical," and "coffee table" became "living room table."

But during my time as the Monitor's book critic, I received only one official complaint from the Church leaders. It was in response to my review of Garrison's Keilor's Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, a funny novel about a precocious 14-year-old boy who belongs to an extremely devout family. He's fascinated with anything to do with baseball and sex, and his weird fantasies provide some of the novel's best comedy. I quoted this line from the novel: "Her breasts are like two friendly otters." The next day, one of the five directors who run the church sent down an edict that he didn't want to see the phrase "her breasts are like two friendly otters" ever again in the Christian Science Monitor. It was an easy promise to keep.

Another time, I thought for sure I'd be called on the carpet, but nothing happened. My review of Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife ran under the headline: "Now Women Have Their Own Moby Dick." Somehow, the double entendre never occurred to me - or the copy editors - until we saw it in print.

Incidentally, the only time the word "penis" has appeared in the Monitor during its 100 year history is when this headline was misspaced: "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword."

Here's to the next 100 years of high standards, on-line.

By Ron Charles |  November 12, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Ron Charles
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