When William Russell telegraphed his reports from the Crimean War to The Times of London in 1854, English readers learned what their soldiers were facing only moments, it seemed, after the barbarous events. This virtual simultaneity was new to journalism, and it was heady stuff. Russell described shocking circumstances that were being denied or played down in government debate about the conflict with Russia, so public attitudes were quickly affected. The two volumes of Russell’s dispatches published in 1856 only consolidated their importance.
Since that day, books by news reporters have usually been, unlike Russell’s, quite different from the regular dispatches on which they may be based and which they aim to surpass. They’re not exactly history, but they certainly contribute to our understanding of historic events—and they sometimes make news. How can that still be true? Russell’s reports had no competition, but today readers are inundated at all hours with breaking stories coming from every possible quarter. Yet amid this information glut, news books still matter, and we should appreciate why.
I don’t have the inside skinny on why newspaper editors permit, condone, or merely endure having their staff writers take off time to compose books, but I can attest to the reasons why we book publishers like it when they do. The reporters are often genuine experts on fascinating subjects; liberated from column inches, they add detail and color, improve and correct, expound more fully on the medium- and long-term implications of events; they also vent their own opinions, which in classical newspaper work should be rigorously omitted—and all of these are prerequisites for a good book. The best work usually comes from reporters who’ve planned a book all along—though sometimes they don’t decide to write one until the middle of a big story and then have to play catch-up—and they weave threads of varying weights and textures. Most important, they step back and reconsider What It All Meant. They change the perspective and, let’s say, the teleology. Their books can be newsworthy, then, simply because of the revised framework of understanding, the fresh re-ordering of known facts.
The ambitious, clarifying narrative of the best news books is what readers want and, I would say, what citizens deserve. It’s because newspapers themselves were once the source of such narrative material that news books by celebrated reporters became popular staples in the book trade. And they weren’t hard to publish, provided you got the timing right. During the Cold War, books that helped make sense of that inscrutable foe, the Soviet Union, were important in this way—for example, Robert G. Kaiser of The Washington Post’s Russia: The People and the Power (1976); and, when that power fell apart, the superb David Remnick’s reports from Moscow recast as Lenin’s Tomb (1993). Joseph Lelyveld’s marvelous Move Your Shadow (1985) was composed after that writer’s second assignment in South Africa; he thanked his New York Times editor for understanding his “compulsion to return” to Johannesburg, and indeed this double dip gave both his work for the Times and his book great depth and richness.
War reporting, to return to the Russell paradigm, is a special category, naturally. The circumstances of battle and patriotic reflexes being what they are, the war book tends either to celebrate the ordinary soldier’s extraordinary experiences and virtues (Ernie Pyle) or to offer a blistering exposé of the war leadership’s craven, error-ridden, duplicitous inadequacy (David Halberstam). Yet exceptions to this dual tendency are often the best of all; in the case of the Vietnam War, Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977), Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (1983), and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie (1988) deservedly reached huge audiences who appreciated their moral complexity and multifaceted interpretation. It’s worth noting that Herr, a feature writer for Esquire and Rolling Stone, wrote his book a half-dozen years after his return from Vietnam; Sheehan, who had been in Vietnam for UPI and The New York Times, delivered his manuscript to Random House sixteen years after it was due. Great war books convey the immediacy of battle, but they take time to write, and readers don’t mind the wait.