Being Seduced and Sent Into Journalism by a Book

David Halberstam: “A touchstone of all that was possible in journalism.”

“I have never yet heard of a girl being ruined by a book,” Jimmy Walker, the 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 and one they would recommend to someone thinking about a career in the news business.

Paul Hendrickson spent 30 years in daily journalism, most of it at the Washington Post,where he was a feature writer. 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 theDead: 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’sBoat, 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.”

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 AtlantaJournal-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.

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. Thousands of journalists swear by it.

First posted on November 14, 2012.

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. Barnard Collier says

    Dear Jack,

    The book that guided me into journalism was “Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain, which I read when I was 14 and let me in on the secret that the best stories are sharp observations of what really goes on among people.

    A boatload of traveling American virgins who believe in the Garden of Eden sail from one fabulous and sinful biblical port to the next and enjoy their life and lifes. Twain told true tall tales, which I found fun to read and to do. I treated him as a master reporter from whom I had a whole lot to learn. His ear for dialect, inflection, and intonation is dead on. He is not awed by religious or mercantile superstition and, except when he became old, sad, and cynical, he made very few complaints to God.

    By first year college, the New Yorker Magazine was my editorial beacon and every story I reported or wrote was written with its clarity of prose in mind.

    Even now, when I get blue and fed up with journalism, I go back to read “Innocents” and thus I owe my entire disreputable career to Samuel Clemens.


  2. Richard Mattersdorff says

    One of my favorite books is William Bradford Huie’s THREE LIVES FOR MISSISSIPPI, which in part reports on the Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner murders in Philadelphia. I first read it at age 12. So the book title SONS OF MISSISSIPPI by Hendrickson caught my eye. I read a review of it and am going to get it. So thanks for this article! Huie was a journalist, too.

  3. Four books impressed me the most as a young journalist:

    “All the President’s Men,” Woodward & Bernstein. I think a lot of young reporters read this as a thriller mixed with mythology, when it’s really a how-to book. It’s a case study in covering a big story. Read “How the Good Guys Finally Won” by Jimmy Breslin if you really want to know the story of Watergate.

    “My Times,” John Corry. The autobiography of a rarity – a guy who spent almost his entire career as a reporter.

    “Fast Copy,” Dan Jenkins. A novel about newspapers.

    “The Boys on the Bus,” Timothy Crouse. More about the day-to-day life of reporters.

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