Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Books That All Journalists Should Read, With a Disclaimer

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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Must Read for Journalism Students, No; Cultural Must-Read, Yes

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is on the list of books recommended by members of the CMA listserv as a book that all journalists should read.

A memoir of her life as a Somali refugee, Muslim, former Muslim, political activist, Dutch politician and advocate for freedom from oppression for Muslim women, this book tells the story of a woman who went through radical changes in her life. While I value this book for the cultural richness it provides, I don’t see this as a must-read for its superior reporting or writing. Memoirs rarely provide great examples for aspiring journalists who are studying reporting and writing skills. However, this book does provide Westerners with a view of the Muslim world that we rarely, if ever read about.

Ali’s upbringing in a Muslim society alone provides the reader some insights into life as a Muslim woman as seen through the eyes of someone who grew up Muslim, then questioned her faith and turned away from it. While that doesn’t provide for an objective look at Muslim life, it does provide some food for thought that runs counter to what many in the West see, hear and read.

An especially interesting and eye-opening aspect of the book for me is Ali’s illumination of two countries—Somalia, her country of birth, and the Netherlands, her adopted country. These two countries figure prominently in Ali’s story, but along the way she also describes other countries, in particular the religious aspects of Saudi Arabia and Kenya. For anyone unfamiliar with these countries, their histories and beliefs in terms of tolerance, especially Somalia and the Netherlands, give a wonderfully personal view of how history and tolerance play out in religion, politics and war.

People who are interested in the Muslim religion would also find this book interesting. Formerly a devout Muslim, Ali became an atheist after fleeing to the Netherlands. Now, she actively speaks against the Muslim religion, thus sealing her position as an Infidel.

Infidel may not provide the depth of reporting of other books I’ve reviewed, but I would say it is a definite must-read for all people who want to learn more about the world around them. So you probably want to read Infidel for its illumination of Somalia and the Netherlands and to give you another perspective on what it’s like to be a woman in a Muslim country.

Up next, Thomas French’s Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Books That Journalists Should Read, Definitely

The Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway

This is book is on the list of books recommended by members of the CMA listserv as a book that all journalists should read under the heading “anything by Ernest Hemingway.” A note: I am not an Ernest Hemingway fan, but in this case, I would agree: The Green Hills of Africa is definitely a must read.

Hemingway’s direct description, tight writing and thorough storytelling make this book a good example of travel reportage.

Many years ago, I read  Death in the Afternoon by Hemingway for a Spanish class. I found it to be tiresome with its minute details about each bull. I also found the bloodsport associated with bullfighting to be personally repulsive. It didn’t keep me from seeing a bullfight myself, however.

The Green Hills of Africa, which details Hemingway’s game hunting trip, contains some of the same bloodsport, so if you can’t stomach hunting, this book isn’t for you. But unlike Death in the Afternoon, there are aspects of The Green Hills of Africa that provide descriptive and captivating prose about Africa, wild animals and the trackers who help Hemingway and his wife throughout their hunting travels.

It is clear in this book that Hemingway’s drinking is problematic, but this isn’t the only book where alcohol consumption is also a major part of the drama.

Hemingway as a character is no more or less developed than many of his characters in his foray into fiction. You do get a sense of Hemingway’s love of hunting in his description of this and other hunts.

Overall, this book can offer the reader great lessons in writing—clearly stringing words together to make short, simple yet not simplistic sentences and paragraphs, and how to weave details and description into a story. 

As always, it’s Hemingway’s clipped writing style that prevails moving the storyline forward at a good pace but never hurrying the action. To see how a writer can accomplish that is worth the read.

Up next, Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Books Everyone Should Read, Really

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

This is book is on the list of books recommended by members of the CMA listserv as a book that all journalists should read, and I would agree.

While this book is celebrating its 50th anniversary, the ideas it contains are still just as fresh as they were when Carson introduced them—our planet is still imperiled by the overuse of toxic chemicals to kill weeds, bugs and other such pests, and people have a general carefree attitude about said herbicides, insecticides and other such toxic chemicals. But that isn’t the reason why all journalists should read this groundbreaking book.

All journalists, all communicators, should read this groundbreaking book because it contains great examples of well-written prose that use many different rhetorical devices to move the reader to action. This book was the beginning of the environmental movement because it stirred people. It moved them to action. It took disparate and complex ideas, broke them into simple language, used analogy, facts, stories and statistics to explain the ideas and challenged people to think differently and ultimately to act. That’s why Silent Spring was so controversial when it was published, and that’s why it continues to resonate with people today.

Carson proved that complex topics such as chemistry, biology and entomology, just to name a few, don’t have to be written about in complex language. She showed that simple, direct and eloquent writing could be applied to science so that the masses could understand. That idea lives on today in some of the best science writing. Take Jon Franklin's Pultizer Prize winning feature articles for example, specifically Mrs. Kelly's Monster.

So why should you, humble communication student, read this book? For two reasons:
1) It’s a great example of well-researched and thorough reporting that supports a well-written and eloquent thesis. In other words, it’s good writing.

2) You will like it, or you won’t like it, depending on your view of the environmental movement. Chances are, you won’t like it, because it will make you angry, but Silent Spring will make you feel. And that, is the most important reason you should read this book.

Up next, Earnest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Books That Journalists Should Read, Absolutely

Slouching Towards Bethlehem  by Joan Didion

This book is on the list of books recommended by members of the CMA listserv as a book that all journalists should read, and I would agree.

I’ve read some of Joan Didion’s most recent books, including the previously reviewed The Year of Magical Thinking, but this is the first one of Didion’s early books that I’ve read. This book is a compilation of essays Didion wrote, mostly about 1960s California.

For those who were children, or rather teens and young adults of the 1960s, this book will remind them of life during the days of drugs, alcohol, rock ‘n roll and free love. Since I don’t really remember those days, this collection of essays gave me another view of the counterculture movement, but what this really gave me was an indication of the lyrical writing style that Didion developed.

While her latest books display a fully developed writer undertaking some of the most difficult subjects anyone has to deal with such as death, dying and the grief process, this book shows Didion in the early stages of her craft but with talent to spare.

Didion’s use of language and style to display tone and mood are superior. Her finely tuned reporting ability gives you the feeling that you are there with her as she interviews Joan Baez, John Wayne and “average” people with the hopes of getting to the heart of life in 1960s America.

This collection gives a great perspective on the history of the United States and the history of a great writer and reporter. Didion shows a keen eye for detail, facts and lyrical voice, providing some of the best narrative writing you will ever read.

A must read for journalists—I’d say absolutely. Unlike the crazy antics and writing of Hunter Thompson, who also wrote about this time period, Joan Didion provides facts and truth, describing the world as it exists and dissecting its meaning, something that all journalism students would be advised to learn.

Up next, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Books Journalists Should Read, Definitely

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis

This is the second Michael Lewis book I have read, with a previous review of Moneyball.

Lewis is a bestselling author and journalist, specializing in business journalism. His forte from the two books that I’ve read is transforming complex economic and business issues into easy-to-understand prose. Lewis also displays a wicked sense of humor in this book, sometimes veering toward scathing, but always entertaining. The title alone demonstrates his sense of the absurd. Look at the table of contents and the countries covered—the new Third World includes Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and the United States.

If you’ll notice, three of the five countries Lewis includes in his list have already experienced severe financial meltdown, and some would probably argue that all five are headed in that direction, which is why Lewis considers them part of the new Third World.

This book details his travels into this new Third World to discover why financial meltdown has occurred or is occuring.

Boomerang shows a top-notch reporter’s skills at their best. Using statistics and personal anecdotes, this book details the economics behind the global financial meltdown and the cultural imperatives that drove it.

Whether it was the unregulated ability for Icelanders to become investment bankers—the overconfidence of the traditional fishermen to learn anything quickly—or the idea that Irish from throughout the world would find their way back to Ireland to buy the massive numbers of second homes being built, it’s easy to see how cultural imperatives, lax loan standards and just plain delusion led many of these countries and to financial disaster.

While this book wasn't on the CMA list of books journalists should read, I think it should be added. Lewis tells a compelling story, using great reporting and clear analysis. If that isn't a great example of good communication, especially for young journalists, I don't know what is.

Up next, the previously promised review of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Check out my latest presentation at AEJMC 2012 in Chicago.
Hang on for upcoming reviews of additional books as well. I've been vacationing from blogging this summer but not reading! Coming soon: A review of Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

In the mean time: