For CJR’s fiftieth anniversary issue, we asked some of our favorite journalists, critics, and academics to help us compile a list of readings that would help the next generation of reporters become better observers, storytellers, and thinkers. Below, you’ll find the twenty respondents’ unabridged lists, presented in alphabetical order. A curated cumulative list can be found here.
The Death & Life of American Journalism (2010)
By John Nichols & Robert McChesney
A caring work of surgery and reconstruction.
Bottom of the 33rd (2011)
By Dan Barry
Dan reinvented sports reporting and writing and told a story that, at the same time, has almost nothing to do with baseball.
American Dynasty (2004)
By Kevin Phillips
A disturbing examination of a family and a political party’s sacking of democracy.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
By Timothy Snyder
The greatest history of the ugliest story of our times. Every body in the trenches of genocide is exhumed.
Den of Thieves (1992)
By James Stewart
As old a tale as this is, the latest den, which brought the world to its knees, is but an echo of the past.
Journalist and radio host
How the Good Guys Finally Won (1975)
By Jimmy Breslin
Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1984)
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Breslin’s Watergate tale and Garcia Marquez’s tale of murder are two works of all-time great storytelling—and written by two journalists.
The Trust (2000)
By Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones
A must-read if you want to understand how The New York Times became our most important newspaper.
The Warmth of Other Suns (2010)
By Isabel Wilkerson
This epic tale of America’s great migration is an example of a reporter telling a huge and important story in a most memorable way.
American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, by Daniel Rasmussen (2011). And a book that is not really a book but more an important document: On to New Orleans: Louisiana’s Heroic 1811 Slave Revolt, by Albert Thrasher (1995).
The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)
By Janet Malcolm
An incredibly irritating but really thought-provoking essay that’s a must-read for new journalists.
In Cold Blood (1966)
By Truman Capote
Still the gold standard for true crime writing, even if there’s some fudging of the facts.
Roughing It (1872)
By Mark Twain
For the sheer joy of writing and giving a sense of place, as well as any of his reminiscences about his days at the Nevada Enterprise, where he admitted he “let fancy get the upper hand of fact too often when there was a dearth of news.”
Melissa del Bosque
Investigative reporter, The Texas Observer
Homage to Catalonia (1938)
By George Orwell
Orwell goes beyond reporting, literally into the trenches, to give his first-hand account of the Spanish Civil War.
By Michael Herr
With plain-spoken prose and sometimes disturbing intimacy, Herr explains in the most potent way the insanity of the Vietnam War.
“The Marriage Cure” (The New Yorker, 2003)
By Katherine Boo
Boo has the rare ability to fully inhabit her subjects and make them come alive in all of their complexities.
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 (1973)
By Hunter S. Thompson
Sharp wit, an underlying deep concern for America’s democracy, and a finely tuned bullshit meter make Thompson’s book one of the best on politics.
The Devil’s Highway (2004)
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Immigrants have become pariahs in a nation of immigrants. Urrea gives migrants the voices and the dignity they deserve as they make their perilous journey north searching for the American Dream.
Senior writer, The New York Times
By David Herbert Donald
A powerful reminder that conventional wisdom can change; for most of his presidency, Lincoln’s contemporaries called him a bumbler.
There Are No Children Here (1991)
By Alex Kotlowitz
All aspiring poverty reporters should study the moral urgency in this story of two young brothers in a Chicago housing project.
Bird by Bird (1994)
By Anne Lamott
By a writer, for writers, about the pain of writing (and how to overcome it).
Move Your Shadow (1985)
By Joseph Lelyveld
His reporting on South Africa provides a clinic on the craft; he mines gold from routine encounters that lesser reporters would ignore.
The Promised Land (1991)
By Nicholas Lemann
This history of the black migration is the best model I know for using narrative nonfiction to depict sweeping social change.
National correspondent, The Atlantic
“The Moral Equivalent of War” (1906)
By William James
This essay, more than a century old, addresses one of the enduring problems and challenges of America: how to evoke any “national” spirit through any means other than war.
A Peace to End All Peace (1989)
By David Fromkin
How what happened after World War I set the stage for twenty-first century challenges in the Middle East.
Lords of Finance (2009)
By Liaquat Ahamed
Whatever happens to the next economy won’t be just like the Great Depression. But this is as powerful a demonstration of “intelligent” folly as you could want.
By James Gleick
I was looking for a book that would illustrate the need for journalists to be comfortable with science and math, since so many of the developments ahead will involve those realms. The exact challenges that Richard Feynman faced will be different from those just ahead, but James Gleick gives a wonderful example of how to deal comfortably with the intersection of science and public policy.
Getting Things Done (2001)
By David Allen
No joke! A very clarifying way to think about how to organize your working life. He is around too.
Are We Rome? (2007)
By Cullen Murphy
An example of applying historical analogies to current events.
Vanessa M. Gezari
Freelance journalist and 2011-12 Knight-Wallace fellow
The Rings of Saturn (1998 English edition)
By W.G. Sebald
As we search for new ways to tell relevant and resonant stories, Sebald’s genre-busting combination of novel, history, and memoir is an inspiring reminder of what is possible in language, and of the depth and texture the world still offers to the imagination.
By Michael Herr
Herr’s wrenching, hypnotic and deeply personal account of his time with the U.S. military in Vietnam is a perfect antidote to watered-down “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” war coverage and a testament to the power of the individual observer.
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1871)
By George Eliot
Eliot’s richly detailed tale of entangled lives in a small English community exemplifies the precise observation, psychological complexity and generosity of spirit to which narrative nonfiction should aspire.
By Walter Benjamin
Written in the anxious years that culminated with Hitler’s rise to power, Benjamin’s lucid, inexorable essays on the profound and often unsettling changes in art, literature and the nature of thought during the early decades of the twentieth century feel thoroughly current today, as changes in the quality and transmission of information are transforming the way we think and perceive the world.
“The Silent Woman” (1993, The New Yorker)
By Janet Malcolm
Malcolm’s account of the mysterious and contested work of literary biography holds innumerable insights for journalists, among them the simple but lasting truth that a story is often made meaningful not by its profusion of reported detail but by what its author chooses to leave out.
Artist and programmer
An Intimate History of Humanity (1995)
By Theodore Zeldin
Each chapter begins with a several-page psychological portrait of a different French woman, in which you invariably see elements of yourself. Each chapter ends by deconstructing the problems, issues, and neuroses of the woman in question, using wide-ranging examples from human history, demonstrating how little we actually learn from the mistakes of the past, but what a self-help treasure trove our collective past can actually be.
Colors Magazine #13 (1994)
By Tibor Kalman
A magazine with no words, only pictures, meant to express what an alien species would encounter when visiting earth for the first time. Along with Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982), a seminal work depicting the human experience in abstract visual form.
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1977)
By Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein
Along with the books of Edward Tufte, this tome is what you’d call “forever knowledge”, offering timeless insights into how humans inhabit physical space, and how those spaces can influence the types of interactions that happen therein. Filled with wisdom, and spiritually antithetical to the “shorter, faster, more” mindset that increasingly dominates journalism today.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000)
By Chris Ware
A masterpiece of the graphic novel genre, demonstrating how storytelling can be solemn, beautiful, and devastatingly sad even using a medium that’s usually considered inferior to the long-form written word.
Staff writer, The New Yorker
Encounters with the Archdruid (1980)
By John McPhee
McPhee’s extended profile of David Brower—the Archdruid of the title—is as relevant today as it was when it was written, forty years ago. It will still be relevant fifty years from now, if, that is, there are any wild places left for us to wrangle over.
Desert Solitaire (1968)
By Edward Abbey
Abbey is the real thing, and those don’t come along very often. His memoir-cum-elegy for the American Southwest is worth reading once a decade or so.
The Song of the Dodo (1997)
By David Quammen
Quammen takes a fairly arcane subject—island biogeography—and from it weaves a great narrative. He’s an intrepid reporter and a wonderful storyteller, and any journalist—no matter what his or her subject matter—can learn from him.
Author of There Are No Children Here
The Laramie Project (2001), by Moises Kaufman, et al, Twilight (1992), by Anna Deavere Smith, Division Street (1993), by Studs Terkel, The Emperor (1989), by Ryszard Kapuscinski, Ghetto Life 101 (1993), by Dave Isay, LeAlan Jones, and Lloyd Newman
With all the shouting and preening among journalists, these are reminders that some of the most powerful storytelling is the result of the journalist stepping out of the way.
By John Hersey
With his understated prose, Hersey pulls off an amazing feat of empathy.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families (1999)
By Philip Gourevitch
This in the end is what journalism is all about: bearing witness (as is Hersey’s Hiroshima.) And in doing so Gourevitch challenges the assumptions we have—about the decimation in Rwanda and about the best and worst of humanity.
The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)
By Janet Malcolm
A provocatively overstated argument that journalists in the end are really hustlers. I fundamentally disagree with Malcolm, but in telling the story of Joe McGinniss and the writing of Blind Faith, she forces us to examine some of the more difficult ethical conundrums we face in telling someone else’s story.
The Things They Carried (1990)
By Tim O’Brien
A novel, indeed. But one whose detail, imagery and entanglement with the truth serves as something any storyteller should aspire to. This collection of stories underscores the ability of seemingly small tales to grapple with much larger matters. You read these stories of grunts on the ground in Vietnam, and it makes the most compelling argument one could make about the ultimate cost of war.
Dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Un Grande Homme de Province a Paris (1839)
By Honoré de Balzac
If you’re ever tempted by the thought that journalism today has fallen to an unprecedentedly low, snarky state, read this novel—possibly the most negative portrayal of journalists at work ever written, set in Paris in the 1820s. It’s very funny and mean and it will make you feel lucky to be around now instead of then.
London Labour and the London Poor (1840s)
By Henry Mayhew
A series of articles written for the London Morning Chronicle, and much anthologized since them. Mayhew, though not officially a journalist, pretty much invented the reported urban sociological sketch, one of journalism’s best and most durable forms, still very much around today. His portraits-from-life of poor Londoners in situ hardly seem dated; they are direct, lively, honest, and compelling.
Berlin Diary (1941)
By William Shirer
CBS News did not really exist in the 1930s—it was a kind of booking agency for dull but worthy interviews with prominent figures. But then the biggest story of the twentieth century broke, and Shirer, a CBS employee stationed in Germany, began covering it. This is part diary, part rewrite of Shirer’s radio reports, and it conveys both the daily feeling of the beginning of the Second World War and the relentless energy and courage of a great reporter at work.
“The Whale Hunt” (2007)
By Jonathan Harris
Everybody talks about the potential for new forms of journalistic “storytelling” online, but nobody I know of has actually produced one at the level of this masterwork of visual reporting by a young artist-programmer, which lets the viewer arrange and rearrange the narrative of a whale hunt in Alaska. It feels like a truly new way of executing the mission of journalism. Accessible, along with other amazing works by Harris, at number27.org.
Columnist, Los Angeles Times
1001 Afternoons In Chicago (2009)
By Ben Hecht
An amazing collection of columns, published in the Chicago Daily News in 1921, and written by the legendary Ben Hecht. Hecht discovers Chicago, avoiding news conferences and press releases, instead observing the city and its people and turning his findings into art.
The Soloist (2008)
By Steve Lopez
An examination of the role of journalism and journalists. When does a news story become a cause? When, if ever, should a journalist ignore the rule against personal involvement in a story and the life of a subject? The Los Angeles Times columnist reflects on all of this and more as he tries to help a former Juilliard student living on Skid Row and trying to play a violin with two missing strings.
Friday Night Lights (1990)
By Buzz Bissinger
The Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter quits his job at the Philadelphia Inquirer, moves to Odessa, Texas, and spends a year studying the impact of high school football on a community, on education, on race relations, and on the lives of young men thrown into the lion’s den with impossibly high expectations and relentless pressure to deliver the coveted prize—a state championship.
Political scientist and blogger, Dartmouth College
Tides of Consent (2004)
By James Stimson
An accessible and provocative summary of a lifetime’s worth of scholarship on the role of public opinion in American politics.
The Strategic President (2009)
By George Edwards
The power of the bully pulpit is vastly overrated—Edwards shows that real leadership takes place when presidents exploit the opportunities they are given.
True Enough (2008)
By Farhad Manjoo
A disturbing summary of the ways in which human psychology fuels divergent perceptions of reality.
All the News That’s Fit to Sell (2003)
By James Hamilton
You can’t understand the press without understanding the role of economics—this is the single best volume on why we have the media we do.
All the President’s Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth (2004)
By Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan
I’m obviously biased, but I think our book stands the test of time as both a critique of the use of PR tactics in politics and the way they are enabled by the norm of objectivity in American journalism.
Editor of The Guardian’s Datablog
Mortality of the British Army (1858)
By Florence Nightingale
Better known as the lady with the lamp, Nightingale was obsessed with statistics—she was the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and devoted her life to imrpoving health care based on facts. In 1858, after her Crimean experiences, she wrote this report, which used data visualisations to illustrate how preventable disease demolished the fighting capability of the British army. Aimed at politicians who would never read tables of data on their own, it caused a sensation—and still reads well as a painstaking demolition of official incompetence.
By Richard Layard
Governments around the world have realised the GDP is inadequate as a measure of how healthy a society is—and are looking now at measures of well-being as an alternative, led by people like Joseph Stiglitz. At least part of the responsibility for this big change lies with Richard Layard’s hugely influential work, which uses data in a detailed analysis of the health of societies around the world. And it’s a great read.
Point of Departure
By James Cameron
Data journalism is all about telling stories and IMO, there are very few story tellers as good as James Cameron. He was the reporters’ reporter, working at many newspapers (including the Guardian) and putting his life in danger in Korea, Vietnam and India. I would love to have met him—and am still inspired by reading this book.
Executive editor, Grist.org
The Closing of the Western Mind (2003)
By Charles Freeman
Freeman’s book uses the history of late antiquity and early Christianity to explain how the political evolution of the church suppressed the Hellenic philosophical tradition of argument and verification—and derailed Western progress for a millennium. Puts today’s fact-vs.-belief conflicts into the widest possible frame. Also hugely readable.
“Mediasaurus” (Wired, 1993)
By Michael Crichton
“The American media produce a product of very poor quality. Its information is not reliable, it has too much chrome and glitz, its doors rattle, it breaks down almost immediately, and it’s sold without warranty. It’s flashy but it’s basically junk.” Michael Crichton’s critique of American media from Wired in 1993 reminds us that complaints about the unreliability of U.S. journalism predate both the rise of the Web and the era of hyper-partisanship.
Understanding Comics (1993)
By Scott McCloud
McCloud’s wonderful, playful analysis of the nature of graphic narrative invites journalists (and everyone else) to continually reinvent every storytelling form we’ve inherited.
Within the Context of No Context (1981)
By George W.S. Trow
The Age of Missing Information (1993)
By Bill McKibben
Two complementary deconstructions of television culture serve as a valuable corrective to today’s wave of Internet-determinist diatribes—and summon us to think deeply and write boldly about the new media culture we’re creating.
Pulitzer-winning reporter and columnist
On Writing (2000)
By Stephen King
He will cure you of adverbs, and embolden your best writer’s instincts. “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open,” King writes. “Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other word, but it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”
The Moon is Down (1942)
By John Steinbeck
This sparse novel was criticized by some of his fellow authors as a too subtle and naive take on the Nazis. It was later heralded as a masterpiece—and an inspiration for countless citizens in Nazi-occupied countries during the war. “It was said that I didn’t know anything about war,” Steinbeck wrote in an essay years later, “and this was perfectly true, though how Park Avenue commandos found me out I can’t conceive.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)
By Betty Smith
The story of Francie Nolan’s childhood in a Brooklyn tenement in the early 1900s remains a tutorial in how to write about the poor and working class as human beings.
Lecturer, Yale University
The Peloponnesian War
Especially the short section, “The Myteline Debate,” where victorious Athenians debate whether to slaughter the Mytelines, a subordinate people who’d helped Athens’ enemies. No “news media” were present in Athens’ democracy, but, as we watch one speaker, Cleon, subtly twisting the meanings of words to drive discourse away from reason and toward emotion, you begin to feel you’re watching Fox News. (I described this in an article, “Humanists and Warriors, Then and Now”. As you might expect, this was written thinking of journalism’s role in the run-up to the Iraq War.
The Unconquerable World (2003)
By Jonathan Schell
A veteran reporter (Schell got his start in Vietnam) and New Yorker writer, Schell here shows how cooperative, democratic power in large, unarmed movements becomes conscious of its true strength and defeats coercive, top-down power in vast, national security states—the British Empire in India, the apartheid regime in South Africa, Jim Crow in the American South, and Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe. (The Arab Spring is a more recent example.), Schell draws on politically savvy philosophers like Hannah Arendt to show that it takes more than just media technology and quick reporting tell the full story.
The Creation of the Media (2004)
By Paul Starr
A somewhat encyclopedic but smart account of how key media-related decisions (from establishing second-class postal rates for newspapers to recent regulations of conglomerate ownership and new media) have shaped the openness but also the gargantuan flaws of the American public sphere.
What Are Journalists For? (1999)
By Jay Rosen
Especially his Chapter 2. Although he wrote it about newspapers, it still parses brilliantly such questions as What really is the public that journalists supposedly serve, and how well do we serve it if we care only as professional employees, about informing the public, but not, as citizens who have special skills and obligations, about how we bring the “public” into being or degrade and dissolve it?
I don’t know if I should even try to recommend anything of my own, but here are two:
Liberal Racism (1997)
By Jim Sleeper
Chapter 3, “Media Myopia,” about how American news media, especially the New York Times, often got race wrong in the 1980s and 1990s. Some important principles and stories I hope we’ve taken to heart, as race remains a central issue that too often defines news coverage as much as news coverage defines it: Here’s the Google Books look at that chapter.
Should American Journalism Make Us Americans? (1999)
By Jim Sleeper
This is a stand-alone pamphlet that I did for Shorenstein that contrasts how nation-building American journalism handled immigration (nationalistically, of course) early in the 20th century with how conglomerate journalism was handling it (opportunistically, for “markets,” more than for civil rights and justice) at the end of the century.
Editor, Honolulu Civil Beat
To the End of the Land (2008)
By David Grossman
This novel captures the inner life of its characters in a remarkably sensitive way, revealing what fiction can do, and what journalism cannot.
Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (1981)
By Jacobo Timerman
This memoir reveals the courage that journalists can be called upon to summon and how it’s possible to retain one’s humanity in the face of evil.
The Things They Carried (1990)
By Tim O’Brien
This collection of related stories is a lesson in writing, of the importance of detail in telling a story. It teaches journalists: Look, see, remember.
The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume II: My Country, Right or Left (2000)
By George Orwell
Not because he is always right—in fact, he is painfully wrong on occasion here, including his premature pronouncements of the death of capitalism—but because this volume more than even the rest of his work shows us the math of thinking yourself, willing yourself to be an uncompromisingly honest and perceptive thinker about the most pressing issues of the day in a crisis atmosphere the like we cannot comprehend.
If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade: An Essential Memoir of a Lunatic Decade (1974)
By Warren Hinckle
Not because it would survive a New Yorker-level fact-check, but because this more than any other ’60s journalism memoir illustrates the missing entrepreneurial link between William Randolph Hearst and the first dot-com wave: The crazed and inspiring sonsabitches that clawed forth the alt-journalism revolution.
Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 (1973)
By Hunter S. Thompson
Not because you should ever even try to write like that—please, God, no, not another imitator—but because Thompson at the height of his powers took Hemingway/newspaper/American prose to places it might not ever reach again, illustrating in the process how Americans put up with unfathomable evil by their elected representatives during our lifetimes.
Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990 (1991)
By Václav Havel
Like George Orwell, Havel provided blueprints for thinking and living truthfully, and in doing so exposed some of the twentieth century’s most evil systems (and their feckless apologists) as being not just wrong but ultimately doomed.
The Politics of Glory: How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works (1994)
By Bill James
Part history, part sustained sabermetric attack, and part political parable, this seemingly inconsequential book by one the late twentieth century’s most influential journalistic iconoclasts is an extended exercise of demonstrating how people usually argue, suggesting improvements to their arguments, then ultimately scrapping the whole politicized shebang for a straight-line journey toward the heart of truth.
Editorial director, Colorlines
The Known World (2003)
By Edward P. Jones
Facts can’t capture all truth, and particularly when it comes to something as complex and intimately brutal as American slavery. Jones’s novel reveals how deeply this institution has scarred the American psyche and, read closely, informs us how it continues to shape our lives.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx (2003)
By Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
The story, which is among the best narrative nonfiction published under the banner of journalism, leaves you unable to draw simple conclusions about the complicated, often no-win choices people with families must face daily.
Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation (2006)
By Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
An essential book that recounts not just the coverage of this crucial era, but the segregationists’ reaction to it—an all-out effort to kill the messengers that helped usher in the notion that good journalism must stick to he said/she said reporting.
The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood (1997)
By David Simon and Edward Burns
Yes, the book that preceded The Wire—and it’s every bit as good as the TV series at exploring the urban collapse that followed when America stopped investing in its cities.
The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.