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6 books every journalist should read

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See the original post on Beyond Bylines.

With the holidays fast upon us, here are some nonfiction book gift recommendations for journalists — neophytes and veterans — that demonstrate the power of the pen. Perfect for family, friends and colleagues — or as a gift to yourself.

1. Working by Studs Terkel

This nine-part book, written by the infamous oral historian and radio broadcaster Studs Terkel, is a collection of personal stories with no overarching narrative or plot that explores the meaning of work. Terkel traveled the country interviewing over 100 laborers: waitresses, sex workers, gravediggers, stonemasons, accountants, bookbinders and more, recording their thoughts on meaning in their jobs.

Since this book was published in the 1970s, these first-person accounts display stark contrasts to today’s working world. Switching jobs every few years to build a career portfolio, the concept of work-life balance, even fear of automation — these weren’t factors the laborer considered.

What makes this book compelling is not just the diversity of experiences relayed, but the commonalities found within those experiences. Working is a great example of what Terkel calls “guerrilla journalism,” and a view into what has — and has not — changed about work. An excellent read.

2. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

Published in 2018, this debut book from a Wall Street Journal reporter with a history of exposing corporate scandals in America shares the investigation of blood-testing startup Theranos.

The story of a manic, hostile CEO full of delusions of Steve Jobs-like grandeur accompanied by fraudulent claims that fooled some of the biggest investors in the world would be more believable as a Hollywood thriller. As it happens, a film adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works, and an HBO documentary, The Inventor, was released in March 2019.

As a book, Carreyrou’s Bad Blood offers not only a chilling narrative of the rise of one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and the company’s subsequent downfall, but also a personal look into the author’s involvement in following tips and tracking down sources.

3. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows is a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist by journalist Nicholas Carr that addresses the question of how the digital age has affected the way we read and process information.

Far from a curmudgeonly railing against inevitable technological changes, Carr first details an interesting history of our modes of reading — from the alphabet to maps, to the printing press, the clock and the computer — and then dives into compelling studies highlighting the plasticity of the human brain.

Carr believes the internet’s encouragement of multitasking, and of skimming and scanning, is causing us to lose our abilities of close-reading, contemplation and reflection. Whether or not you’re as much a fatalist about our supposed intellectual regression as Carr, The Shallows is bound to provoke some thought about how we package and digest our digital news.

4. All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Considered by many to be the single greatest reporting effort of the 20th century, the investigation of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s is relayed by the two Washington Post reporters who spearheaded the story in a third-person detective novel fashion. The book was published just months after the investigation’s conclusion in 1974 and only a month and a half before articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon were approved by the House Judiciary Committee.

The fast-paced account is filled with so many riveting events that there isn’t room to include much philosophizing or introspection. The essential story is more than enough, however, especially the dramatic accounts of the inner workings of the famed Washington Post.

5. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

While critiqued on the veracity of some dialogue and factual discrepancies, Capote’s classic is more than worth the read as the gold standard of true crime writing.

In Cold Blood reconstructs the murder of a small-town Kansas farmer and his family, along with the investigation and execution of the two murderers. Through over 8,000 pages of notes taken from interviews with local residents and law enforcement, as well as a self-proclaimed ability to perfectly remember every word of even a six-hour-long conversation, Capote creates an incredibly vivid narrative.

It’s not a who-done-it or will-they-be-caught, as that information is known from the start, but that is partly what makes the book so impressive. Through the recollections of those connected to the murder, as well as the chillingly human portrayal of the murderers’ perspectives, the story manages to be incredibly gripping without needing the crutch of a twist ending.

6. The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth

This list has gone a bit dark in subject matter, so let’s end with a book about the happiest countries on Earth. The title may point to a grim conclusion, but it belies a narrative that is incredibly humorous.

Booth, an English journalist and self-proclaimed “cynical misanthrope” to whom Scandinavian folksiness is kryptonite, sets out to investigate the ubiquitous reports and surveys that name these countries as having the happiest citizens in the world, despite their high taxes, cold weather, etc. The book takes readers through Scandinavian history, culture and psychology, leaving them with a mix of memorable anecdotes and fascinating research.

Despite the journalist’s initial objective of demonstrating the serious and seldom-mentioned challenges and flaws of the region, the author admits his belief that for all its problems, Scandinavia is “still the enviably rich, peaceful, harmonious and progressive place it has long been.”

Do you have another book recommendation? Let us know!


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