When Writers Are Seduced by a Book

By Mike Feinsilber

“I have never yet heard of a girl being ruined by a book,” Jimmy Walker, the Jazz Age mayor of New York City, said during a censorship debate in Albany. But the same can’t be said of journalists.  Lots of writers have been seduced and sent into their careers by a book.

Jack Limpert and I asked a bunch of people with a connection to writing to pick two books: One that had the most influence on them during their careers and one they would recommend to someone who was thinking about a career in the news business.  We got not only a bunch of titles, but also a bunch of yarns, a lot of nostalgia, a bucketful of memories. These comments are too numerous for a single blog posting, but too good not to share. So we’ll post more nominations over the coming weeks:

Paul Hendrickson spent 30 years in daily journalism, most of it at the Washington Post, where he was a feature writer.  He came to understand, he says, “the truth of the saying that the legs are the first to go and that the honorable and difficult business of writing perishable pieces on deadline belonged to younger people.”  Now he conducts writing workshops at the University of Pennsylvania.  He was born in California and grew up in the Midwest and spent seven years in a Catholic seminary in the Deep South, where he studied for the missionary priesthood. This became the subject of his first book in 1983: Seminary: A Search. Among his other books: Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott; The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War; Sons of Mississippi, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in general nonfiction. His most recent book, Hemingway’s Boat, was a bestseller. His next will have to do with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Hendrickson says he was most influenced by two books: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest which “came out when I was a young reporter at my first real job at a big metro daily, the Detroit Free Press. I was there 1972-74. I didn’t read it all then, just some of the excerpts in Harper’s. Not even sure I understood it all, since I didn’t know much about Vietnam. A couple decades later I would publish The Living and the Dead, and by then Halberstam was mentor and good friend. That book remains a touchstone of all that was possible in journalism. It is easily Halberstam’s big book (though maybe not his best written one, though certainly among the top two or three of the 17 or so he did write in his abbreviated life). He was my beacon that maybe I could do something someday too.”

If he could offer a second book, Hendrickson said it would be John McPhee’s early collection, Pieces of the Frame.

Deb Riechmann has spent the last three years reporting on the war in Afghanistan for the Associated Press. She covered the White House for AP during the George W. Bush presidency and started with AP at a one-person bureau in Hagerstown, Maryland.

From Kabul, she emailed:
“The most influential book for me was Watch Your Language by Theodore Bernstein. It’s because I had never been taught the proper usage of words—that ‘between’ is used when you are talking about two things and ‘among’ is used when it’s more than one.  Another big entry was ‘comprised.’ The whole comprises the parts, not the other way around. I remember spending hours studying all the entries while in my dorm room.

“I think that is the book I would recommend to new journalists so that correct usage is not lost to future generations. You can order it online for a few bucks.”

Andy Glass, contributing editor to Politico, has had a long career in journalism—a former senior editor and managing editor of The Hill, and 28 years as a reporter, Washington bureau chief and senior correspondent for Cox Newspapers which in his day published the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and 16 other daily newspapers. Earlier, he worked for the Washington Post, Newsweek, and the New York Herald Tribune. For two years, 1968-70, he worked for several moderate Republican senators.

To the blog’s question, he offered an immediate reply which mimicked the brevity of the book that was both most influential and that he would recommend to upstart journalists:  ‘The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. “Without a doubt,” said Glass. “You can easily imagine why.”

Glass wasn’t the only one to nominate this classic. The Elements of Style is a reference book, so short you could read it over breakfast and be changed forever. Written in 1918 by Strunk, a professor of English at Cornell, and revised in 1959 by his former student, E. B. White, the New Yorker essayist, it has influenced generations of writers with marching orders from Strunk: “Use the active voice”; “Omit needless words”; “Revise and Rewrite.”

Wrote White in the forward to the second edition: “I have been trying to omit useless words since 1919.” Millions of copies have sold; in 2009, Mark Garvey wrote a book about the book. Thousands of journalists swear by it.

Is there a book that influenced you or one you’d recommend to a young journalist? Send any suggestions or comments to mikefeinsilber@gmail.com 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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