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Professional Readings (New Feature)

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by jgmacg, Apr 20, 2007.

  1. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    In the year this workshop has been up and running, we've seen a lot of writing. We've read here the first efforts of some very young writers indeed, as well as wonderfully finished pieces by writers with a wealth of talent and experience.

    In an effort to further broaden the range of influences and examples for everyone here, I thought I'd begin a thread of suggested professional readings. Unlike the Books Thread, which offers a wide range of recommendations for general reading; or the Authors' Thread, wherein I complain about my life choices, I guess I intend for the writers and stories and books included here to offer some insight into what might be possible in nonfiction. Models from which we can all learn something.

    In that spirit, for rookie and veteran alike, I'll begin with Joseph Mitchell, and "Up in the Old Hotel." This is one of the seminal works in modern reporting and writing. It is an invaluable part of any writer's education. The book itself can be found here:


    Some quick background on Mr. Mitchell can be found here:


    and here:


    Feel free from here on out to post your responses to the recommended books on this thread, or to recommend your own influential favorites. Thanks.
  2. dawgpounddiehard

    dawgpounddiehard Active Member

  3. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    This is a wonderful, wonderful idea for a thread, and something I've wanted to start for a long time, if only to ask the question of writers I admire, "What SHOULD be on your bookshelf?"

    I already have the Royko book (and as I've said before, his column about his wife passing away is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever), and I just ordered the Mitchel book. jgmacg, I'm pretty much buying anything you suggest.

    I really, really wanted to recommend Esquire's Big Book of Great Writing, which came out in 2004, but oddly, it seems to be out of print. You can get it on Amazon, abe.com, and ebay, but the cheapest price is $80. (I got my copy for $20.) I know there was an issue with the fact that the original version features an article where Gore Vidal libeled William F. Buckley Jr., and that Hearst was forced to cease publication of the book and destroy old copies, but I'd assumed they'd reprinted it without Vidal's essay, which Buckley and his lawyers were fine with. I guess I was wrong.

    Anyway, if you stumble your way into a used book store and see a copy, grab it. It's absolutely essential reading. Contains some classics like "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" by Gay Talese, "Hell Sucks" by Michael Herr, "What do you think of Ted Williams now?" by Richard Ben Cramer, "There Goes That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby Around the Bend," by Tom Wolfe, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" by Norman Mailer, "String Theory" by David Foster Wallace, and some other great ones.

    I guess since I can't really recommend and $80 book, I'll offer up one of the more important books to me in recent years, Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets by David Simon. This is essentially the best, most accurate, honest book about police work ever written. On of the best non-fiction books of the last 25 years. If you want to understand how difficult real police work is, this is a good place to start.

  4. buckweaver

    buckweaver Active Member

    Let me recommend <a href="http://www.davidpietrusza.com/Rothstein.html">"Rothstein,"</a> by David Pietrusza.

    It's one of the most unusual biographies I've ever read, because it's written almost like a novel the way he unfolds the story of New York gambling kingpin Arnold Rothstein. It's refreshing to read, especially for so much detail. The depth of his research is the most impressive feature of his book, because he goes back, in great detail, into the history of Tammany's reign in New York and the way it set up Rothstein's reign in the city -- and how Rothstein's influence helped keep Tammany in control through the early 20th century.

    Usually, a book like that is written by an academic, for academia. This one's not. It's an intriguing way to approach a biography, but you've got to have the substance behind it to make it work. Not to mention, the story has to be right. But as a reporter/writer/researcher, this book impressed me professionally -- not only in the way he approached it, but the way he executed it.
  5. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Obviously, a lot of what's going to get posted on this thread is going to seem to be of most immediate benefit to feature writers. This is about half true.

    One of the things I've noticed over the course of the year we've been at work here is that too often "sportswriters," especially the younglings, look only to other sports writing for their influences. The result is a certain uniformity in thought and language and approach. While it's important to master the forms into which we fit our stories, especially our newspaper work, it's equally important to draw what we can from other sources.

    Historically the best writing about sports - whether we're talking about deadline beat writers or columnists or feature writers - comes from those writers who draw their style and content and architectural cues from the broadest possible range of possibilities. This means reading widely and well - outside the world of sports. Whether you admire Telander or Pierce or Gary Smith or Red Smith or Jones or Deford or Murray or Rice or Runyon or Lardner or Heinz, rest assured that one of the things they hold in common is an awareness of a wider world, both in fact and in literature. Part of the challenge of being a good "sports" writer then, is fitting athletic endeavor into some greater, deeper human context.

    So read everything.

    I'll post a couple of quick suggestions this morning, too.

    First, from the original workshop thread, this link to the Paris Review author interviews. I've never read one of these but that I didn't learn something. Craft is craft, whether you're banging out a 10-inch gamer, or trying to figure out how to strip the fat from "The Old Man and the Sea." These can absolutely crack your head open.


    Also, two more influential examples of nonfiction. The first is "Dispatches" by Michael Herr.


    While this is a book about war, not sports, the two things are near enough each other in the American mind that we use the language of one to describe the other. Thus I mention it here. For its unflinching honesty, for the music of its language, for its madness and empathy, and for its perfect rendering of the hallucinatory quality of being deeply embedded in the absurd consequences of America's love and the workings of our hate, it is a work of genius. "In Pharoah's Army" by Tobias Wolff is the more widely taught Vietnam memoir these days, I think because the vernacular of the 60s is hard for students born in 1985 to grasp, but "Dispatches" is the definitive rendering of the insanity of the time. For a straight-up history of our lunatic years in Southeast Asia, try Frances Fitzgerald's "Fire in the Lake."

    Then, and I can't recommend it strongly enough, "The Sweet Science," by A.J. Liebling.


    Now back in print after a long absence, this book bears between its covers perhaps the best long-form sports writing ever done. For its elegance and humor and ambition, for its style and devotion to history, and for its understanding that sports are only one of the many strands in the grand tapestry of human enterprise, it should be required reading for every writer everywhere.

    And as a practical matter, as regards hard to find books or books out-of-print, one of the best bookstores in America, The Strand, can be found here:


    Oh. I just posted this general reference on the Books Thread, so I'll tack it up here, too:

  6. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    For reasons that surpasseth understanding, the Plaschke/Crews thread on the J-board put me in mind of central Florida. Which put me in mind of Mr. Frank Conroy, one of America's great writers. His memoir "Stop-time" is a model of the form, and a perfect tutorial in the ways and means of description and understatement. His rendering of the infinite blue emptiness of the Florida sky is what brought him to mind. The book can be found here:


    A little bit of biography can be found here:


    Mr. Conroy passed in 2005, having led the Iowa Writers' Workshop as director and instructor for years and years. Read his work; he teaches still.
  7. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    And because one thing leads inexorably to another, thinking about the Plascke/Crews piece led me back to Gary Smith's definitive treatment of the same story from 1993.

    "The Ripples from Little Lake Nellie" it's called. I can't find it online, but it's available in Mr. Smith's collection, "Beyond the Game."


    Or collected in the SI anniversary book listed here:


    Both of which are welcome additions to any sportswriter's working library.
  8. MartinEnigmatica

    MartinEnigmatica Active Member

    Let me just say that I'm glad this thread got thumbtacked at the top. I hope to make some valuable contributions eventually, but this gives me yet another reason to put a portion of my paychecks to a Barnes and Noble fund. Don't know how valuable this is, but one book that serves as a lesson in how to totally dissect a topic is No Logo by Naomi Klein. It's not so much a story as research and an executed argument, but it's not a dull read as you'd think.
    I might just be smitten with the subject (branding). Still, the thing fascinated me, eye-opening.


    One chapter that left me nodding was the one about branding at universities (especially sports).
  9. Duane Postum

    Duane Postum Member

    I have a wonderful 1945 Penguin paperback of Mitchell's "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon," an early collection of his New Yorker pieces. Like drinking clear, cold water. I'm in awe of this guy.
  10. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Having bade farewell to our colleague David Halberstam on other threads, I'll post here some links to what he leaves behind.




    And I'll single out one piece of work in particular for mention here, as it bears directly on what most of us on this board do for a living.


    Required reading for us all. If you don't already own it, buy it.

    Mr. Halberstam was a great writer and a great friend to writing. Let your commitment to good work be the blessing you make to send him on his way.
    swingline likes this.
  11. This might be blurring the lines a bit, but don't overlook readings on the fictional side, either.

    Particularly from the "low rent" district.

    I too pay homage to the altars of many of the authors listed above... but when it comes to narrative flow, few folks have had the kind of rhythm quite like Robert E. Howard had when he was spinning the tales of Conan yarns. And as misogynistic and xenophobic as ole Ian Fleming was, his descriptive powers are among the best. Fleming's the only guy I can think of where I can sit down, with a full stomach, read a description of some meal 007 is eating, and instantly feel hungry.

    Is it the same type of "higher writing" as the folks listed above?


    But we can still learn from it.
  12. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Of course we can.

    But it's harder to teach from, ODS.

    Nobody writes better dialogue than Elmore Leonard* - but that's not a skill a lot of the inexperienced writers here need to worry about. Yet. For feature writers especially there's a lot to be learned from fiction regarding everything from rhythm to story arc to figurative language to character development. And from good writing of any stripe or genre comes a love and respect for the versatility of language. (And nobody made this language sing, without seeming to, like Raymond Chandler.)

    But to get those things - to successfully dismantle a story into its component parts, understand it, learn from it and then reassemble it - requires a lot of editorial skill. Young journalists especially need to learn to read with a purpose. That's part of the point of the thread - to get writers reading with a pen in their hands, marking up these books to figure out how somone who does the same thing they do did it.

    You're absolutely right. Fiction of all kinds, high and low, can be a great teacher - if you've got the tools in your bag to make sense of it.

    And I'm not trying to high-hat anybody with the choices that get posted here. Breslin and Royko bring as much to this discussion as Kempton or Halberstam. If you've got good suggestions - from graphic novels to pre-modern classics - bring 'em on.

    *Interestingly, at least for the purposes of this discussion, in the mid-50s Leonard wrote a fan letter to another author. Leonard was writing western genre stuff at the time, and he thanked the other author for teaching him how to write honest dialogue. The other author was WC Heinz - the sportswriter.
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