Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French
This is on the list of books recommended by members of the CMA listserv as a book that all journalists should read. For its depth of reporting, I would agree, but I find the writing style to be a bit over the top in places, really reaching to be clever or make a point.
Yes, I realize who Thomas French is. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who won his Pulitzer for feature writing. Yes, I understand that he’s the perfect person to basically write an extended feature story. But just because he’s a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist doesn’t make what I’ve said about over the top writing less true. To me, that makes it even more important to point this out.
When I teach reporting, especially when covering disasters, fires, and the like, one of the first things I tell reporters is to watch for overwriting. With disasters and new reporters, that’s the tendency—to make it the worst disaster of all time. At times, French slips into the line of writing with hyperbole, exaggeration and just plain over-the-top analysis of the setting, the animals and the people, anathropomorphizing his way through the zoo. While this should probably be expected in a book about a zoo and its animals, it’s very difficult to explain to the students who will be reading this book why it’s okay to do the things they’ve been taught not to do.
French is great at story flow. This story moves pretty seamlessly from Africa to Tampa, but then it stops. While the elephants start the story, the only ones we learn more about are the ones in Tampa.
I wanted to hear about the other elephants headed for San Diego. How did they fare? French spent so much time getting me concerned about all of these elephants flying to the United States that I was disappointed when I didn’t get the whole story.
As a piece of non-fiction writing, I’d say this book has some things to teach beginning students of journalism—the importance of storytelling to enfold your reader in your writing, the importance of reporting to get details and color. But I’d say young journalists should read this book with a word of caution from professors of journalism: Simple writing is best.
Up next, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.