Larry Van Dyne, Bob Kaylor, and Wes Pippert: The Books That Made Them Write

By Mike Feinsilber

Larry Van Dyne grew up on a family farm in northern Missouri and graduated from the journalism school at the University of Missouri, where he wrote for its city daily and was editor of the student newspaper. He landed a job as an education reporter at the Boston Globe, spent 10 years traveling the country for the Chronicle of Higher Education, then worked for 30 years as a senior writer at The Washingtonian, the city magazine in the nation’s capital. A generalist in an age of specialization, he’s written about lawyers and banker robbers, museum directors and basketball coaches, the environment and universities, historians and jazz musicians, airline crashes and architecture, politicians and transexuals.

Coming of age in the 1960s, he says he was swept along by the Zeitgeist to yearn for the stylistic freedom he imagined was available to magazine writers. Van Dyne points to Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology, The New Journalism, as the book that affected his writing. Nothing, he says, captured the times better. The book carried pieces by Gay Talese, Michael Herr, George Plimpton, Truman Capote, Terry Southern, Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, Joe Eszterhas, John Sack, Joan Didion, and many others whose new approach drew on the literary devices of the realistic novel.

He picks up the story: “About the same time I took the train from Washington to New York one morning to attend a conference on the New Journalism sponsored by [MORE], a lively journalism review of the time. I remember the stage being filled with magazine luminaries, including Wolfe, Talese, and Gail Sheehy as well as a couple of New Yorker writers, Renata Adler and Calvin Trillin. The tart-tongued Adler caused a ruckus by dismissing Wolfe’s literary pretensions and by allowing that the New Journalism reminded her less of the novel than PR (‘Snappy prose about inconsequential people’).

“I admired the wit of Adler’s put down but kept experimenting with some of the techniques that Wolfe touted as I moved into writing for magazines. My use of ‘status details,’ as Wolfe called them, was not always successful. A few years later, in a feature about him tied to the publication of The Right Stuff, I embarrassed myself by misidentifying the fabric in his lemon-yellow suit. It’s sort of old journalism, I suppose, but it was a reminder to always check the facts.”

Bob Kaylor spent three decades reporting for Gannett newspapers, UPI and U.S. News & World Report in Asia, Europe, Africa and the U.S., including Washington. Then, in a sharp career turn, he became an architect.

City Editor, by Stanley Walker, a 1934 memoir by the longtime New York newspaperman at the Herald Tribune. is the book that most influenced him in journalism. Kaylor: “It deals with his own and other newsmen’s adventures, as well as larger questions of the role of journalism in America as seen from the inside, ethics, journalism schools (he wasn’t very high on them), and reflections on newspapering as ‘the greatest business on earth.’ I salvaged it from a pile of donated books at my high school school library. Fascinating reading that prompted me to grab an opportunity to work on the post newspaper while in the Army, and then to spend six months as a copy boy on two New York papers before resuming college. Although it chronicles a largely bygone era, many of its points remain relevant.”

The book he’d recommend to a starting journalist: Another vote for The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. “It started in 1919 as Cornell professor Strunk’s 43-page ‘attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin,’ in the words of White, one of Strunk’s students and later a New Yorker writer.  White then did two revisions that lengthened it to 85 pages, still a model of brevity.’ “I first ran across it at Cornell, where an English professor recommended it….Great not only for beginning writers but also worth a periodic re-read for any of us, particularly when we find ourselves becoming convoluted.”

Wes Pippert has just retired after 22 years directing the University of Missouri’s Washington Program. He spent nearly 30 years with United Press International and its predecessor, United Press, in Minneapolis, the Dakotas (covering the beginning of George McGovern’s career), Chicago, and Washington (covering McGovern again, Watergate, Congress, the Carter White House) and finally three years in Jerusalem and the Middle East.

“I always wanted to be a reporter from the time I attended a one-room country school in Iowa,” he says. “About that time I read a book that helped fix my determination, perhaps even to be a radio newscaster. I remember the book as On the Air, although my memory may be faulty on the title. It was a fictional account of a young fellow who worked for a radio station and how he handled the news. I soon stumbled upon another book with a similar title, News on the Air, by Paul White, who was CBS’ first news director. White’s book was serious, perhaps one of the first of its kind. It was full of advice, like, ‘use present tense in most stories.’ ‘generally don’t begin a radio news spot about persons with their proper names—rather, like in a traffic accident, make it A 23-year-old man was killed…and in the next sentence, The victim was….

“At the time I was in a state high school radio speaking contest, and the newspaper copy they fed me to deliver in radio style included the Italian communist leader Togliatt and a couple others. I decided not to use the proper names—thus avoiding goofing on the pronunciations—and instead said, ’The Italian communist leader says…’ I think I won, or at least placed.”

This is an ongoing series about the books that journalists say lured them into reporting and writing and the books they’d recommend to aspiring journalists. If you were drawn into journalism by a book, join the conversation with a note to [email protected].

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