When Writers Are Seduced by Books (Part Two)

By Mike Feinsilber

“You’ll be the same in five years as you are today, except for the people you meet and the books you read.” – The late Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, as quoted by Jeremy Porter, editor of Journalistics, a blog.

Some news people say they were driven into the business by a book. Reporters who can’t remember the first story they wrote often can remember the book that inspired them. Jack Limpert and I asked—and are still asking—journalists, active or retired, to name the book or books most influential on their careers. We posted the first batch on November 14 and these books were cited then: The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam; Watch Your Language, by Theodore Bernstein; and The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Here are more books that changed lives:

Jay Stowe, editor of Cincinnati magazine, has worked as a writer and editor at Esquire, Spin, New York Observer and Outside. He says Gay Talese’s Fame and Obscurity was the book that most shaped his career.

Stowe writes: “In the spring of 1988, had the great good luck to be able to sit in on a class at UVa taught by Jonathan Coleman in which Gay Talese (and his wife, Nan) spoke in great detail about his work—everything from how he got the mob to talk to him for Honor My Father to the backstory of his sine qua non Esquire piece ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.’

“I was completely unfamiliar with Talese and his work, and that two-hour session cracked open a new world to me. The scales fell from my eyes: You mean you can appropriate the style, tone, structure, and ploys of novels and short stories for use in nonfiction reporting? That’s allowed? Wow. I’d never heard the words ‘narrative nonfiction’ before (or the term ‘piece,’ for that matter) but, suddenly, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Or at least give it a shot. I took Jonathan’s class the next semester, devoured Fame and Obscurity, and never looked back.”

As for a book he’d recommend to a young person, Stowe names Dispatches by Michael Herr and tells why: “Hard, real, brutal, fantastic. If you really want to know what it takes to write and report and tell a story that will have staying power (crazy things to want to do in these ephemeral times), it’s all here: compassion, fear, loathing, joy, agony, ecstasy, honesty, duplicity, death, life. For whatever reason, America and Americans love war, and we pass this Thanatos Syndrome on from generation to generation. But it’s a rare book that tells you as much about
American culture and the times we live (or have lived) in as it does about an overwhelming historical event, in this case the Vietnam War. Herr was sent by Esquire editor Harold Hayes (see a pattern here?) to cover Vietnam from the grunt’s-eye view. He succeeded, against all odds, skirting death more than once in the process, and brought home what amounts to a literary spinal tap of our collective American DNA: the bravery, insanity, hubris, and humor.

“Herr’s voice is not something you can easily emulate, which is also why the book is so great. He found it early on, amidst the mayhem he was witnessing, and stuck with it; it is steady but shot through with gallows humor, awestruck yet grimly authoritative. Never didactic, never boring. It borders on the poetic. While he channels the voices of the characters he brings to life, his voice takes on a tone of stoned, ill-fated wisdom as the book unfolds. He captures the moment in every section of the book; you go along on his journey with him and you come back changed. If you’re into narrative nonfiction, that’s what you should shoot for. Also, the section entitled “Colleagues” is one of the best evocations of journalists in action that I’ve ever read; it’s brutally honest (especially about the physical, emotional, and psychic tolls that being a front-line first witness to history takes) and communicates so well the esprit of the press corps at that time. War is life, life is war full of perverse fun, sadness, mania, hysteria, horror, amazement, and pity.”

Isabelle (Lancaster McCaig) Hall was a teenager  in Canada when she decided to become a newsperson. Let her tell the story:

“I sat on the end of my bed one day when I was about 13 to decide whether or not I wanted to become a writer or a painter. I chose writing and, after high school when I was 15, I signed up for a three-year journalism course at college.  There was a big discussion whether I was too young but, as there were only six or seven students taking the journalism course, I was finally allowed to attend.

“The Winnipeg Free Press was one of just two newspapers willing to take two of us on as summer students the next year. Apparently we were the only ones who applied for the jobs. My father took the train to Winnipeg from Toronto to ‘interview’ the newspaper’s editor and was satisfied that his 16-year-old child would be okay alone there once he found a safe place for me to rent a room. I earned $35 a week which, actually, wasn’t too bad when I could buy lunch, a hamburger and a glass of milk, for 35 cents.

“When I finished college, I was hired by British United Press, the Canadian name for UP, which later changed to UPI. I later served as Toronto manager until I asked to be transferred into the U.S. As for influential books, I was impressed by High Tension, the recollections of Hugh Baillie, who became president of United Press, and The Kingdom and the Power about the New York Times by Gay Talese.”

Garrett Graff’s parents are both writers—his dad is a veteran Associated Press correspondent and his mom’s an author— “so,” he says, “I’m just following in the family business.” The Brattleboro Reformer calls his dad, Christopher Graff,  “one of Vermont’s most respected, reliable and influential journalists.” Garrett is now editor of The Washingtonian magazine.

He lists two books: Timothy Crouse’s Boys on the Bus, an account of the press corps that covered the presidential campaign of 1972.  Says Graff: “This really awakened in me my desire to be a reporter.”

And the book he considers most influential: Editor of Genius by W. Scott Berg, the biography of Max Perkins, the Scribner book editor who edited Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, and many other great authors. “This book,” says Graff, “more than any other has influenced how I’ve grown as an editor and shaped the way that I interact with writers and their stories.”

Has your career in journalism been shaped by a book you read? Can you recommend a book to a young journalist? Send your comments—and brief identification of you and a description of your career in journalism—to [email protected]  and we’ll continue to post more nominations. Have a good story that shows a reporter, writer or editor at work? We welcome those, too.

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