Two redesigns ago, in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review launched a back-of-the-book feature called Second Read that has proved immensely successful. The idea was to ask journalists to look back at books that moved and shaped them. For our very first Second Read, the historian Rick Perlstein reread a favorite of his, the late Paul Cowan’s book, The Tribes of America. Thirty years earlier, in 1974, Cowan had set out to write about a howling mob of Christian fundamentalists furious at the use of “blasphemous” books in the public schools in their corner of West Virginia. When the county school board rejected their demands and kept the books in the curriculum, somebody took out a wing of the school board building with fifteen sticks of dynamite. Boom.
The Village Voice sent Cowan, a scruffy, longhaired New York Jew, to cover the story. You might think his take would have been fairly predictable. But you would have been wrong. Cowan produced a subtle and sympathetic account of the terrible frustrations of people on the losing end of a class war, people who felt their culture was under unrelenting attack by cosmopolitans from a very different corner of the county. That story launched Cowan on a series of explorations into America’s culture wars that would become The Tribes of America. Cowan’s book inspired, among others, the young Rick Perlstein. And when Perlstein got a chance to write about it for CJR, his essay helped bring Tribes of America back into print. A virtuous circle.
Since 2004, our Second Reads have traveled across time and geography—to World War II, for example, in Michael Shapiro’s lyrical tribute to the reporting of Cornelius Ryan for The Longest Day; to South America, where Miles Corwin showcased Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s powerful early journalism in The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor; to the Great Depression, where Claire Dederer introduced CJR readers to a wise and almost cheerful perspective on it from Betty MacDonald and her Anybody Can Do Anything; even to pre-history, as Douglas McCollam rereads John McPhee’s timeless Annals of the Former World. On page 50 of this issue comes our latest installment of Second Read. This time, Jeffrey Greggs writes about four volumes of interviews and essays from Victorian England—Henry Mayhew’s remarkable London Labour and the London Poor, which brought to his middle- and upper-class readers the lives of the poor in London, as unknown to them as life on the other side of the world, and each life unique and sharply etched.
And now, we are proud to announce, comes a collection of some of the best of Second Read: great modern writers like Nicholson Baker, Ted Conover, Connie Schultz, Jack Shafer, and Scott Sherman reflecting on works by classic writers like Daniel Defoe, Michael Herr, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and Rachel Carson. The book is called, naturally enough, Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage. It is the first effort in a new series of CJR books, to be published by Columbia University Press, and about which you will hear more later. James Marcus edited Second Read and wrote its lovely preface; Marcus, the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine, was CJR’s editor at large between 2007 and 2010, and brought in many terrific Second Reads. John Palattella, the literary editor of The Nation, edited CJR’s Ideas & Reviews section before him. That work is done now by Justin Peters, our managing editor/web. Justin also writes, beautifully, and Second Read features one of his own essays, a lively piece about Peter Fleming’s hilarious Brazilian Adventure. Second Read will be available in bookstores in November, but can be pre-ordered today from your local bookstore, or from Amazon, BN.com, or another online retailer.
Speaking of ordering, this is a good time to get somebody a gift subscription to the Columbia Journalism Review or to get or renew your own. The issue after this one will start our fiftieth anniversary celebration, and you don’t want to miss it. You can subscribe to the print or the digital edition, or both, at cjr.org/ subscriptions, or call 888-425-7782.