The Books That Made Us Journalists: A Summing Up

By Mike Feinsilber

Ask 21 journalists to name the books that drew them into the business and you get a shelf full of them—33 titles.

The most cited book is no surprise: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This classic no-nonsense manual is so short (concision is one of its preachments) that 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, White, the famous New Yorker essayist, this book has influenced generations of editors and writers. It speaks authoritatively, if somewhat dictatorially, about what a writer should and should not do:  “Use the active voice”; “Omit needless words”; “Use definite, specific, concrete language.”  Millions of copies have sold; in 2009, an Elements lover, Mark Garvey, wrote Stylized, a book about the book. Journalists Andy Glass, Bob Kaylor and Jim Glassman cited Elements as an element in what made them writers.

Other books cited more than once in this informal survey:

The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore S. White, the forerunner to a stream of quadrennial behind-the-scenes books about presidential campaigns. Jill Abramson, in a 2010 New York Times essay, praised White’s “superbly structured narrative” and said, “Even though the reader knows the outcome, there is tension throughout.”  (This book was cited by Bob Cullen and Jim Glassman.)

The Boys on the Bus. Author Timothy Crouse covered the reporters who covered the 1972 presidential campaign between Democrat George McGovern and Republican President Richard Nixon. Crouse wrote critically, humorously, and admiringly in his fly-on-the-campaign-bus book about pack journalism. The book is still used as a text in journalism college courses. (Cited by Garrett Graff and Sandy Johnson.)

All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The Watergate break-in and its consequences, told by the two Washington Post reporters, drew a million youngsters into journalism. (Cited by Sandy Johnson and John Fennell.)

The Kingdom and the Power, an inside-story biography of the New York Times by Gay Talese, who had worked there 12 years. (Cited by Isabelle Hall and Andy Alexander.)

Editor of Genius by W. Scott Berg, a biography of book editor Max Perkins, whose genius brought Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe to the public’s attention. (Garrett Graff and Jack Limpert.)

And these books listed by a single contributor:

How the Good Guys Finally Won by Jimmy Beslin. (Cited by Steve Hurst.)

Fame and Obscurity by Gay Talese. It was cited by Jay Stowe: “You mean you can appropriate the style, tone, structure and ploys of novels and short stories for use in non-fiction writing? That’s allowed? Wow.”

The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein (cited by Jim Glassman, who called Bernstein the “keeper of the clarity and grammar flame for the New York Times).

Watch Your Language, another Bernstein bible. (Debbie Riechmann.)

The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (cited by Jim Risser as a book to inspire journalism’s newbies).

High Tension, the recollections of the late Hugh Baillie, president of United Press, whose reporting ranged from Woodrow Wilson’s fight for the League of Nations to the testing of the atom bomb at Yucca Flats. (Isabelle Hall.)

The Best and the Brightest, a book about the making of the Vietnam war in which author David Halberstam asks: “What was it about the men, their attitudes, the country, its institutions and above all the era which had allowed this tragedy to take place?” (Cited by Paul Hendrickson, who calls it “a touchstone of all that was possible in journalism.”)

An Approach to Journalism by Neale Copple. (Jim Risser.)

Deadline Every Minute by Joe Alex Morris, the scrappy early days of United Press. (John Simonds.)

Genius in Disguise by Thomas Kunkel, the remarkable biography of the remarkable editor, Harold Ross, who founded the New Yorker. (Jack Limpert.)

The Years with Ross, James Thurber’s casual, and funny, biography of Ross. (Mike Feinsilber.)

The New Journalism an anthology brought together by Tom Wolfe of writing by the new journalists who adopted the storytelling techniques of fiction to convey the nonfiction of news. (Larry Van Dyne.)

The Literary Journalists, edited by Norman Sims, and Literary Journalism, a New Collection of the Best American Journalism, edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer. Two more books showing that news can be told handsomely. (John Fennell.)

A Treasury of Great Reporting, an anthology by Louis L. Snyder and Richard B, Morris. The subtitle tells all: “Literature under Pressure from the Sixteenth Century to Our Own Time.” (John Simonds.)

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and The Great Shark Hunt, both by Hunter S. Thompson. (Chris Wilson.)

City Editor by Stanley Walker, the late, great city editor of the late, great New York Herald Tribune.  In the book, Walker wrote a few paragraphs on what makes a good newsman and concluded, somewhat cynically, “When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.” (Bob Kaylor.)

News on the Air by Paul White, CBS’ first news director. His book teaches what just about every new wire service staffer has to learn fast: how to take a news story that has been written for the eye and rewrite it for the ear. (Wes Pippert.)

The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, almost forgotten now but once one of the nation’ s most important journalists. A  “muckraker” who exposed municipal corruption in a corrupt time, Steffens was a forerunner of today’s investigative journalist. (Mike Feinsilber.)

The Wrong Stuff, a book about the undoing of Congressman Duke Cunningham, described by the book’s subtitle as “the most corrupt congressman ever caught.” It was written by a team of Copley newsmen whose journalism led to the undoing. (Sandy Johnson.)

What It Takes: The Way to the White House by the late Richard Ben Cramer, a 1,047 -page masterpiece of political storytelling. Politico’s Jonathan Martin, after Cramer’s death on January  7,2013: said it wasn’t a book “you read once, enjoy and put down, out of sight and out of mind, when you finish. It’s just as worthwhile to dip back in and read a few pages as it is to plow through the entire thing.” (Jill Lawrence.)

Newspaper Days, one of three volumes of autobiographical recollections by H. L. Mencken, called “America’s most notorious journalistic curmudgeon.” (Andy Alexander.)

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, another reconstruction of a presidential campaign, this one about 2008.   (Cited by Jill Lawrence as a good book for newcomers to the news business.)

Dispatches by Michael Herr, recommended for newcomers to journalism by Jay Stowe, who says, “If you really want t know what it takes to write and report and tell a story that will have staying power…it’s all here.”

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of 22 essays by Tom Wolfe, an early example of the New Journalism at its newest. (Cited by Jim Glassman: “showed me that journalism could be fun, fun, fun.”)

Irrational Ravings by Pete Hamill (“Breslinesque style,” says John Farrell, “with lots of Irish-American blarney and swagger. It made newspapering sound like a great adventure.”)

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