A Dozen Books that Made Me Who I Am, for Better or for Worse
They say if you want to write well, you need to be well-read, and while I may be deficient on a pile of classics and must-reads so vast that it seems hopeless to ever tackle it, I do try to do my homework, especially when it comes to the style of writing I’ve elected as my primary mode of creative expression: non-fiction. Specifically, journalism, dispatches, and accounts. In an effort to spread the good word and sell the books of a bunch of dead people (and a few live ones), I’ve compiled a woefully uncomprehensive list of a dozen of my favorite collections of literary journalism from a dozen writers I count as my favorite and most influential. Dozens more are lined up behind them, so I reckon this is just the first of what will potentially be several installments.
Under a Lucky Star by Roy Chapman Andrews
There are almost as many “the inspiration for Indiana Jones” as there are “the inspiration for James Bond.” But if anyone has a solid case, it’s adventurer, naturalist, paleontologist, archaeologist, former president of the Explorers’ Club, and former director of the American Museum of Natural History Roy Chapman Andrews. His memoir, Under a Lucky Star, is a globe-trotting thrill ride that includes shootouts with Mongolian brigands, drinking nights with Japanese geishas, and fisticuffs in black market bazaars — all in the name of science! Being a naturalist was a lot different then than it is now, and while the decision not to go around blasting all sorts of exotic animals so they could be mounted in a museum was a good one, the rest is sadly missed. Neil deGrasse Tyson is really interesting, but imagine how much more interesting he’d be if he had a story along the lines of, “We went there to look at Saturn through a telescope, but first we had to fight these Nazis.” Andrews’ report on his own incredible exploits is breezily written, full of wit and charm and an incredible sense of place. When he’s not recounting tales of Indiana Jones-esque (or The Good, The Bad, and the Weird-esque) derring-do, he’s busy discovering dinosaur eggs, skeletons, developing theories about the evolution and migration of man, and running New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Available from Amazon.
Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly
American reporter Nellie Bly not only blazed trails as a woman working in serious investigative journalism, she blazed trails as a journalist period. Her early reports about the awful conditions for female factory workers were met with dismissive hubris by editors, who when they accepted a female journalist expected to write about dresses and flowers and society galas. She responded by picking up and heading off to Mexico to work as a foreign correspondent. Ten Days in a Madhouse, her account of the horrific conditions suffered by inmates in the “madhouses” of Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), was a pioneering work of undercover journalism that ushered in an era of mass asylum and prison reform. But it’s the spirited high adventure of Around the World in 72 Days that predictably captured my attention. An attempt to travel the globe in the same amount of time as Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg, Bly recorded the adventure in a series of articles for the New York World. Among the many adventures she had on her whirlwind tour were an audience with Verne himself, a visit to a leper colony, and acquisition somewhere in China of a pet monkey. You can get The Complete Works of Nellie Bly for 99 cents from Amazon ebook.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Capote’s best-known book (well, it’s this or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but so many people don’t realize that was a book) is deceptively simple. Beginning with the assumption that you know how it ends — it is, after all, the story of an infamous murder and the subsequent trial — In Cold Blood starts with the most simple and mundane of activities, drawing out the tension and building Hitchcock-like to the inevitable, tragic events that serve as the subject of the story. Capote deftly draws you in, immersing the reader in a simple, honest American town that is ripped apart by a brutal murder and descends into paranoia, gossip, fear, and suspicion. Although a work of nonfiction (more or less), Capote uses the accounts of the two killers’ own actions and own opinions of themselves (and each other) to serve as a sort of unreliable narrator, only allowing the truth to come out as the events unfold. It’s a chilling, heartbreaking story, somehow both a slow burn and ceaselessly thrilling, perhaps the greatest of all “true crime” books. Available from Amazon.
Thrilling Cities by Ian Fleming
In the midst of his fame as the author of the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming was invited to write a series of travelogues for The Sunday Times. Asserting that he was not interested in being yet another sightseer at the Coliseum, Fleming wrote about what one would expect Fleming to write about: eating, drinking, carousing, exotic local indulgences, and things that pissed him off — of which there are plenty, especially in New York, a city he savaged so mirthlessly that he was compelled to write the short story “007 in New York” by way of an apology. The dispatches were later collected into a book, and while not all the information remains relevant (restaurants and bars do close, after all), it’s surprising how much of it is still useful not just as a fun read, but as an actual travel guide. Fleming’s writing is a conversational blend of witty, informative, and cantankerous — one can imagine he and Mark Twain would have gotten along famously as berth mates — or killed one another. Available from Amazon.
Travels in Tartary: One’s Company and News from Tartary by Peter Fleming
Although lacking today the notoriety of his little brother Ian, Peter was in his day the more accomplished, more famous, and more adventurous of the brothers Fleming. A war hero, a field operative for British Intelligence, an adventurer, and a writer of travel articles, Peter Fleming’s greatest literary accomplishment is a recounting of his time traveling across Russia Asia in the service of The Times of London. His dispatches from the incredible journey were later collected into two volumes: One’s Company and News from Tartary, available in one massive tome, Travels in Tartary. In addition, Fleming wrote To Peking, a journal style “behind the scenes” account of what went into his epic transcontinental journey. Across Asia, Fleming finds himself aboard the Orient Express, hunting bandits in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, and navigating the peculiarities of Chinese bureaucracy. His writing is frank and honest: if he doesn’t like somewhere or something, he states it bluntly. No tactful attempts to be coy or kind. And on days when he was too lazy to go see anything, he fesses up. He is also very funny, and despite his fondness for self-effacing humor, remarkably insightful even when he’s desperately trying not to be. Available from Amazon.
By-line: Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s work as a journalist often gets lost in the shadow of his novels. Luckily, Byline: Ernest Hemingway compiles a selection of his newspaper and magazine writing together into a convenient volume. As one expects from Papa Bear, there are countless articles about hunting, fishing, bullfighting, exploring, drinking, eating, war — although the best might be the growing litany of injuries Hemingway suffers in a seemingly endless procession of accidents and calamities. He began working as a journalist in Kansas at only eighteen years old, and his subsequent journeys carried him around the world. It’s hard to imagine a time when Hemingway would be writing hotel reviews, but there he is giving the low-down on Swiss chalets. Through hunger, revolution, bouts of malaria, and giant Bavarian feasts, Hemingway recounts these many adventures with the clean, sharp prose for which he would become famous. Available from Amazon.
Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl
Kon Tiki represents the perfect storm of scientific inquiry, adventurous spirit, and batshit insanity that once characterized much of the world’s exploration. Thor Heyerdahl had a theory that Polynesia was colonized not by intrepid explorers departing Asia as was commonly assumed, but was instead colonized by similarly intrepid explorers who set off from the coast of South America. To prove this a possibility, Thor rounded up a team of researchers and explorers, built a raft using prehistoric South American blueprints, dubbed it Kon Tiki, and hopped on board, trusting the currents, wind, and the great god Tiki to carry him and his crew to Polynesia. The ensuing journey covered some 5,000 miles of Pacific blue and included more than a few hair-raising situations. In the end, Heyerdahl and crew did indeed reach a Polynesian island. And while his theory about colonizers from South America is generally not accepted, the tale of how he went about proving it could have happened is one of the very finest accounts of high adventure. Available from Amazon.
Up in the Old Hotel/My Ears are Bent by Joseph Mitchell
Joseph Mitchell talked to people. New Yorkers mostly, for The New Yorker magazine. He eschewed the rich and famous, the literati and glitterati of the city and focused instead on the eccentric, the odd, the down and out. Reading one of his articles is like listening to an old Tom Waits album. Gypsies, old men working the fish market, strippers, barflies…the gritty underbelly that makes the city go and keeps it interesting. Although his writing have recently been tarnished a bit by having it revealed that some of them were composites of multiple people rather than a single, actual individual, Mitchell’s profiles are still compelling reading and quintessential New York. Up in the Old Hotel and My Ears are Bent collect most of his best portraits into a single whiskey-and-cigarette smoke saturated look at urban humanity. Both Up in the Hotel and My Ears are Bent are available from Amazon.
The Southern Gates of Arabia by Freya Stark
The late Victorian and Edwardian periods were full of daring women who bucked traditional roles, embraced danger, and racked up incredible tales of their exploits. Towering above them all, perhaps, was Freya Stark, a British explorer and anthropologist who never seemed at peace if she wasn’t in the middle of a situation that could result in her beheading. In her one hundred years of life, few courted death as often as she did. Her area of obsession was the middle east and Central Asia — localities which, even today, are not particularly fond of traipsing Westerners — let alone female ones. Whether discovering the birthplace of the Hashshashins or trekking across Turkey, any chronicle of her travels is a worthy addition to the repertoire of the well-read adventurer. But if you have to start somewhere, it should be with The Southern Gates of Arabia, the first in a trilogy (followed by Seen In The Hadhramaut and A Winter in Arabia) recounting her journey through Hadhramaut (in current-day Yemen), one of the most rugged and least-explored regions in the whole of the Middle East. Available from Amazon.
The Gay Talese Reader by Gay Talese
Like Joseph Mitchell above, Gay Talese specialized in human stories, and he told them in a narrative fashion that many thought was out-of-place in the trade of journalism. Those people were wrong, of course, and Talese today remains one of the most respected and influential of reporters. He was more than happy to write about famous people, but more times than not, he wanted to catch them on the way up or on the way down — not to be a booster in the one case, and not to parade them out for criticism in the second; but instead, because those periods are when a person’s stories are the most vital. His piece for Esquire, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold” is still taught in journalism classes and makes just about every list of the greatest pieces of journalism of all time. He put himself in the story, but never put himself “in the story,” reporting instead from the shadows and sidelines, experiencing everything but not making himself the central character the way so many less talented practitioners of “new journalism” tend to do. I consider everything he’s ever written to be essential reading, but barring that, The Gay Talese Reader hits his most important articles — from Sinatra to DiMaggio, Floyd Patterson to Fidel Castro to a gang of feral cats in New York City, and plenty in between. Available from Amazon.
The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson
If Gay Talese had done a lot more drugs and was a much worse dresser, he would have resembled the heir apparent to his throne (though Talese outlived Thompson, so I guess that metaphor falls apart). Thompson took “new journalism” and turned it into “gonzo journalism,” a frantic seat-of-the-pants style that often put the author himself in the middle of the story, sometimes as the focus of the story, though in Hunter’s case he did his best to live the sort of life that made that self-indulgence reasonable. As a write for Rolling Stone in its heyday, Hunter covered primarily sports and politics, two fields that often seem more or less identical. I read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 during every Presidential election. The Great Shark Hunt collects together many of his best articles for Rolling Stone, including unforgettable encounters with Muhammad Ali, the Kentucky Derby, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, hippies, drug fiends, and Thompson’s lifelong mortal enemy, Al Davis, former general manager of the Oakland Raiders. More than any other writer, modern magazine journalists try to ape Thompson’s style. They all fail. They don’t have his energy. They don’t have his originality or his insight. And they forget that if you as a journalist put yourself in your own story, you owe it to your readers to be interesting. Available from Amazon.
The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
Although schools mostly teach his fiction, Twain was at his best as a reporter. Specifically, as a travel writer. And while all of his chronicles of travel in the mid-to-late 1800s are must-read adventures, none finds him so perfect as he is with The Innocents Abroad, an account of Twain’s globe-trotting journey on one of America’s first tourist cruises. In typically Twain fashion, he sought not only to take the wind out of the world’s most important places (Paris, Florence, the Holy Land) but to let his book serve as the antidote to travelogues that are overly breathless, every second full of wonder, every experience a soul-enriching delight. Like Peter Fleming, when something rubs Twain the wrong way, he lets loose with both barrels, regardless of whether it’s a pushy Florentine tout, a hustling tour guide, or an ugly neighborhood. I read The Innocents Abroad in its entirety every other year, and I have yet to grow weary of it or not find myself laughing out loud at the exploits of Twain and the comical cast of folks traveling with him. Amazingly, I visited many of these same places in the 2000s and found The Innocents Abroad was still a pretty dependable guide, especially in Italy. It is, I declare without hesitation, the single greatest travelogue ever written. You can download it for free in ebook form from Amazon.