What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader?

Before the books arrived, Adam Gopnik, in an effort to be polite, almost contradicted the essential insight of his life. An essayist, critic, and reporter at The New Yorker for the last 31 years, he was asked whether there is an imperative for busy, ambitious journalists to read books seriously—especially with journalism, and not just White House reporting, feeling unusually high-stakes these days—when the doorbell rang in his apartment, a block east of Central Park. He came back with a shipment and said, “It would be,” pausing to think of and lean into the proper word, “brutally unkind and unrealistic to say, Oh, all of you should be reading Stendhal. You’ll be better BuzzFeeders for it.” For the part about the 19th-century French novelist, he switched from his naturally delicate voice to a buffoonish, apparently bookish, baritone.

Then, as he tore open the packaging of two nonfiction paperbacks (one, obscure research for an assignment on Ernest Hemingway; the other, a new book on Adam Smith, a past essay subject) and sat facing a wall-length bookcase and sliding ladder in his heavenly, all-white living room, Gopnik took that back. His instinct was to avoid sermonizing about books, particularly to colleagues with grueling workloads, because time for books is a privilege of his job. And yet, to achieve such an amazingly prolific life, the truth is he simply read his way here.

I spoke with a dozen accomplished journalists of various specialties who manage to do their work while reading a phenomenal number of books, about and beyond their latest project. With journalists so fiercely resented after last year’s election for their perceived elitist detachment, it might seem like a bizarre response to double down on something as hermetic as reading—unless you see books as the only way to fully see the world.

 

Being well-read is a transcendent achievement similar to training to run 26.2 miles, then showing up for a marathon in New York City and finding 50,000 people there. It is at once superhuman and pedestrian.

 

In 1980, a 23-year-old Gopnik and Martha Parker, soon to be married, took a bus from Montreal to Manhattan and moved into a 9-by-11 basement studio—a short walk and a world away from their current place—where they unfolded a couch into a bed and read to each other at night. Though Gopnik initially pursued a doctorate in art history, he had fantasized about writing for The New Yorker since childhood. After years of slipping stories under the magazine’s Midtown office door and then finding them in the mail, returned, he was hired in 1986 and reported hundreds of unsigned “Talk of the Town” features on New York “eccentrics and eccentricities,” spending hours “fortifying” pieces at the public library.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

His journalism heroes were “men and women of enormous instinctive and autodidactic erudition,” like Long Island Newsday city columnist Murray Kempton, “the most literate man I’d ever met,” or the late New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling, who “was fantastically well-read in French and English equally, and had Stendhal at his fingertips, yet was one of the first reporters at Omaha Beach.”

RELATED: Study: Breitbart-led right-wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda

Soon, Gopnik’s beat became his palette. The magazine’s editor, David Remnick, glows in public when describing his writer’s range as a generalist. Gopnik writes insightfully on, for example, the cultures, politics, and histories of France, Canada, and the United States, plus Shakespeare, The Beatles, urban planning, gun control, Middle Earth, mass incarceration, fine art, Darwinism, liberalism, fascism, jazz, World War I, magic, and cooking. Like Liebling, he reported for The New Yorker from Paris. (Could his family’s time there have ended with a more dreamlike professional feat? An essay on the birth of a daughter won the National Magazine Award.)

For one piece, the necessary reporting might include 20 books. He writes with the morning coffee from 9 and reads after dinner until 11, usually for four hours each. “I’ve discovered that reading is actually one of those skills that increases exponentially the more of it you do, and it doesn’t stop improving the older you get, which is an encouraging fact,” he told me. For work, he now reads the average book, preferably with Mozart or Haydn playing, in one and a half, maybe two hours.

Love of reading was, if not innate, second nature: his mother, a linguistics professor; father, an English professor; brother, an art critic; and four sisters, all Ph.Ds. The labor of writing, as he’s put it, “is, if not uniquely hard work, then uniquely draining.” Reading afterward is emotionally and intellectually replenishing. In that way he’s like the British artist Thomas Gainsborough, who painted portraits for a living and then, to unwind at night, painted landscapes.

There are oceans of instruction and information (libraries full) on how to be maximally healthy and fit. The curriculum of self-education is more haphazard; we take in local newspapers, tweets, Netflix documentaries, cable and radio shows, glossy magazines, Snapchat Discover feeds, email newsletters, podcasts, listicles, and literary journals based mostly on pleasure and habit. The same is true for choosing categories of news to follow. Democracy depends on an informed citizenry, but after high school nobody wants compulsory homework.

Journalists would seem to have a professional responsibility, maybe even a public duty, to self-educate with greater strategy and intensity—to be Serious Readers. The lifelong discipline of the journalists I interviewed is grounded in the belief, as Gopnik says, that “books contain essentially all the information in the world on every imaginable subject. They’re the world’s most efficient technology.”

And so he resisted the urge that afternoon to be apologetic about the unique joys and benefits of book reading available to, in his example, up-and-coming journalists at BuzzFeed “producing posts at a ridiculous rate,” or anyone, really.

“It would be brutally unkind and unrealistic to say, Oh, all of you should be reading Stendhal. You’ll be better BuzzFeeders for it,” he had said. “But at the same time, that’s true, and I think the whole history of great American journalism shows that’s true.”

 

Being well-read is a transcendent achievement similar to training to run 26.2 miles, then showing up for a marathon in New York City and finding 50,000 people there. It is at once superhuman and pedestrian. My reporting was bound to overlook brilliant, worthy readers, but to help identify which journalists exemplify lifestyles of Serious Reading, it was useful to follow chains of admiration.

For instance, Charles Johnson, author of The Way of the Writer and the celebrated novel Middle Passage, suggested the New York Times columnist David Brooks, who suggested the Weekly Standard Senior Editor Christopher Caldwell. Matt Bai, a Yahoo News political columnist, suggested Joel Lovell, the podcast editor and magazine writer, who in turn suggested The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino. The New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb suggested the essayist and critic Katha Pollitt, who suggested Rebecca Traister of New York Magazine. And so on.

(When I first met Brooks for a profile in the fall of 2015, he had just returned to Washington from a six-day trip in Russia and Turkey, for which he packed and finished eight books.)

 

Journalists would seem to have a professional responsibility, maybe even a public duty, to self-educate with greater strategy and intensity—to be Serious Readers.

 

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most respected magazine writers of the day, as much for the sharpness of his sword as the depth of his artillery, once wrote, “The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.” There’s a lot of equipment inside a gym—without knowing better, you might spend an hour doing a few curls and then bouncing around on a balance ball. A balance of news and broader information is desirable, but the optimal proportions can be elusive. Discussing reading habits tends to make people nervous about coming off, as one newspaper writer put it, “like a pretentious twit.”

I encountered no fanatical workaholics like Aristotle, who read with a brass orb in hand so if he dozed off and released his grip, a bang on the ground would startle him back to work. None was quite as industrious as the late writer David Foster Wallace, who advocated studying a usage dictionary on the toilet. Nor did I interview any stunt readers like Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs, who spent a year ploughing through Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z, 44 million words in all.

A couple years before his death in 2008, the legendary critic John Leonard estimated that he’d read 13,000 books for work. As he once explained, “I spend half my day writing about television, and the other half writing about books, and I read instead of sleep.” One way or another, Serious Readers must overcome a basic problem: There are only so many hours in a day.

In the Trump era especially, just keeping up with the news can be suffocating. At 7 each morning, the New York political analyst Jonathan Chait gets up in his Washington home and reviews the tweets he slept through, followed by policy news and Op-Eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. From 8 onward, with a break to cook and eat dinner with his family, he’s plugged into following news on the computer, taking short pauses to write when inspiration strikes.

“I’ve been draining down my long-term capital because the value of reading books is very high even if the payoff is delayed,” Chait says. “I can constantly get ideas from the news, but you need depth elsewhere.”

“You can’t live like this forever.”

 

Rebecca Traister probably learned the most basic fact about books before she could read one: There’s always another waiting to be opened. To appreciate that, she only had to look around. In the Philadelphia house where she grew up, “books were furniture.” Between her mother, an English professor, and father, a rare books collector and librarian, the family inventory grew to 40,000, roughly twice what you might find in an independent bookstore.

Her expertise is women in politics; when we spoke, she was reporting a cover story for New York on Hillary Clinton’s life since the election. There may not be an entrance exam for journalists, but is there a threshold of reading necessary to earn credibility covering a topic—some quantity of books read, or some familiarity with seminal works? On a basic level, sure, but that also misses the lesson of Traister’s childhood.

“Name something you think you’re an expert in and there’s probably some angle of it that you have only done the shallowest amount of reading on,” she says. “That’s all of us at all times.”

As a Washington Post political columnist and commentator on NPR, PBS, and MSNBC, E.J. Dionne Jr. worries constantly about coasting on “knowledge that’s miles wide and inches deep. How do you avoid reaching conclusions out of instinct and not from information?” Daily home deliveries are a start—the Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times—then magazines, his greatest pleasure. He reads (“opportunistically,” admittedly) The Nation, National Review, The New Republic, Democracy, Dissent, Commentary, The American Prospect, The Weekly Standard, The New Yorker, New York, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Economist, New Statesman, The National Interest, The American Interest, and magazines about religious communities: First Things (interfaith), Moment (Jewish), Commonweal (Catholic), and America (Jesuit).

He takes a moment to think. “Oh, and Time!”

Much of his book reading has a future column in mind. Lately, he’s also been drawn to histories of the 1930s and ’40s, and the lead-up to the Civil War—which, he says, “strikes me as eerily similar to now.” As Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, tweeted on May 1:

But many nights after work, the last thing Dionne wants to do is open something heavy. Instead he’ll read mystery novels, a passion since discovering The Hardy Boys at age 8. His late mother, a librarian, believed the best way for kids to develop a habit of reading was by picking up whatever they found most exhilarating. The same seems to hold for adults.

For all of these journalists, book reading supports their work irreplaceably but indirectly. However, if you’re studying techniques for muscle growth, there’s probably something to be gleaned from bodybuilders.

Off in a quiet corner of The Washington Post’s new building at One Franklin Square, sufficiently far from the newsroom’s anxiety shrine—a giant monitor displaying up-to-the-second Web readership—is the office of the paper’s nonfiction book critic, Carlos Lozada. Most days, he reads for an hour starting at 5:30, before his three young children wake up, and squeezes in a dozen or so pages on the train to work. From an armchair in his office with his feet on the desk, he’ll try to read 50 pages at a time without checking email or Twitter. Back at home, he might add another hour in bed. That pace allowed him to read just over 100 books during his first year as a book critic, in 2015, and about 80 last year. He finds the work delightful, though one regret is that it leaves no time for leisure reading, apart from reading to his kids.

ICYMI: Do you live in a Local News Desert? Check out this really cool interactive to find out

When I visited, he had just reviewed David Garrow’s 1,472-page biography of Barack Obama. Over the prior month, as prep, he’d read 100 pages a day of other Obama bios. When the new book arrived, it required that he read 225 pages daily for a week. For each book he reviews, Lozada makes three passes: First, underlining and jotting notes in the margins; then, highlighting the interesting underlined parts; and finally, transcribing the most important highlighted material. In short, “it takes forever.”

To his surprise, the election of a president with zero apparent interest in books seems to have inspired a surge in reading nationwide. It’s good news, of course. “But,” he told me, “if it takes a brutally divisive election and concerns over American authoritarianism to get you to read, maybe you could have started earlier.”

 

Insomnia has been a lifelong blessing for Jia Tolentino. From around midnight until 2—since the election, sometimes 4:30—she sits on the couch with a stuffed whale and her 90-pound mutt, Luna, nearby and reads. She reads for another hour when she wakes up around 8:30, and in free moments throughout the day. “I can’t tell whether it’s cause or effect,” she says, “but I do know that when my life is in order, I’m reading a lot.” In her most salubrious rhythm, she finishes a book every two days.

She writes two or three times weekly for The New Yorker’s website from her apartment in Brooklyn. With her schedule, she says, “I’m very conscious right now of being able to read more than I probably will at any other point in my life.” (At a recent event, David Remnick said Tolentino’s rate of publishing would have given a previous generation of New Yorker writers “a heart attack.”) Until two years ago, she was deputy editor at Jezebel, which required perpetual attention to news. “Sometimes I would medicinally read if I was catching myself losing my mind. I’d put my phone down, go read a book of poetry, then go to bed.”

When she’s been “suckling at the teat of Twitter” all day, she finds her attention span is shot. These days she doesn’t shun the Web, but she keeps it at arm’s length: She doesn’t get push notifications, stays off Gchat, and rarely checks Twitter mentions. (When The New York Times Book Review Editor Pamela Paul reads at home, she says devices must stay in a different room.)

 

The election of a president with zero apparent interest in books seems to have inspired a surge in reading nationwide.

 

Tolentino is usually reading a book that could make its way into her writing along with one that almost certainly will not. When we met, she was in the middle of Joyce Maynard’s novel To Die For, Morgan Parker’s book of poetry There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, and a collection of lectures from 1978 by Roland Barthes, The Neutral. Her work reading aligns almost perfectly with what she’d read for pleasure. If research feels tedious, that’s reason to question whether the topic is worth writing about.

“I’m not a sanctimonious reader,” she says, “but I think there’s a cumulative beauty that can be achieved in books that you can’t really get on the internet.”

Any goal-oriented book reading “is kind of like drinking from a fire hose,” says Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune. “You do the best you can.” He joined the paper’s editorial board in 1981, at just 27. Back then he wrote mostly about economics and civil liberties, while foreign policy and national security were blind spots. He looked up to George Will, “maybe not stylistically or philosophically, but for his ability to write about a whole range of subjects with real authority.”

By the time of the Gulf War in 1990, Chapman felt he had spent enough years of self-study to begin to trust his instincts. “It’s a tough slog, but I figured I was going to be at this for a long time.”

When Robert Silvers died in March, obituaries of The New York Review of Books co-founder showed him pictured with towers on his desk 25 books tall. A similar scene is found at NPR headquarters in Washington. The office of Michel Martin, weekend host of All Things Considered, is closer to a walk-in book closet that sacrifices space for a couch and a desk—with about 70 books piled underneath it.

Martin’s schedule leaves little time to read for pleasure. Her speed helps make up for it: On the three-and-a-half-hour Amtrak ride to New York City, she can usually start and finish a book. Fiction is reserved for summer, though “it is not unheard of to schedule a series so that one might have an opportunity to read some of it.”

“I hope my sisters in journalism don’t hate me for this, but to me the biggest impediment to reading is having a newborn,” she says. “I had two.” Those were the only times, however, when she’s been caught up on issues of The New Yorker. “You feel that sense of accomplishment: I still have a brain. I’m not just oatmeal and spit-up.

As for what to read, Martin says she’s “not in the should business.” Then again, she adds, “People in this country are woefully ignorant of history. I think people should take it upon themselves to understand the country they live in.” She recommends Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a history of African-Americans’ Great Migration from the South. “It’s 600 pages and exquisite and something you need to know.”

 

In second grade, our class was drilled on the Food Pyramid, a guide to the proportions of food groups in a balanced diet. Could that sort of pyramid be crafted for the mind, listing the ideal daily servings of, let’s say, news, commentary, criticism, science, history, poetry, and fiction? Perhaps it could be updated periodically for subject matter—the correct balance of what a responsible citizen should learn about race, gender, class, war, faith, and so on. As a teen, Christopher Hitchens was a voracious but directionless reader, later recalling, “I was too brittle to decide among so many possible treats.” If only he had a Serious Reading Pyramid, right?

Most journalists with enviable reading routines would never dream of following such a model. Adam Gopnik loves reading cookbooks, collections of letters, and James Bond novels—pleasures, but not guilty ones. “If you can tolerate one piece of advice,” he says, “it’s don’t segregate the great continuum of reading.”

 

There may not be an entrance exam for journalists, but is there a threshold of reading necessary to earn credibility covering a topic?

 

“To be a good reader, paradoxically, doesn’t mean being a discriminating reader, it means being an omnivorous reader,” he explains. “You never know what will grab you.”

There are only so many hours in a day, but the most common workaround for devoted readers is surprisingly uninventive. “I have yet to meet a great journalist who is not well and widely read,” Tom Lutz, editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, told me. “In my life, the only way that happens is if one carries a book at all times, and uses the odd moments life provides to read.”

Around the New Year, a striking number of journalists on Twitter announced resolutions to read less online and more from books. Many of us probably know we’d be better for it. To get over the hump, the guidance from well-read journalists echoes what William James said about religion: Just find a way to start the practice, and somehow, the faith will always follow.

ICYMI: Two dozen freelance journalists told CJR the best outlets to pitch

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt