Reading is the only way to learn how to write. I kept pushing this point all semester and I certainly assigned a lot of readings. This being college, and these being college students, we operate with this wonderful notion that everyone has the time and desire to read it all.
But anyone who ever went to college knows that’s not true. Although I “loved to read” as a teenager and college student, I didn’t truly get busy reading until after I left college. At about age 22 or 23, I suddenly wanted to read everything, especially longform feature writing, nonfiction books, cultural criticism and serious magazines and newspapers. I started reading not only for content, but to study the craftsmanship.
It’s a habit, like exercise. Wondering why a particular writer seems to have so many ideas and great stories in him is like wondering why someone has six-pack abs. (Sorry for this sorta macho metaphor.) People with beautiful bodies make it look easy, because the rest of us don’t get up every single morning and see them working out for hours and hours. People with beautiful words in them are working out, too, when they read. Last week’s New Yorker is basically 100 stomach crunches or a series of stretches, just a warm-up to our real regimen. Reading is regarded by most as a leisure activity, but it isn’t — or not only. It takes the same sort of discipline as exercise. It requires the same amount of effort.
There are several articles I wanted us to read as a group in the class that we just never got around to. (I always knew we’d never get to all of it.) When I tweaked the final two weeks of class and altered the final story assignment, I abandoned quite a few examples of pop-culture narrative, especially the longer stuff.
So here’s a list. You might not ever get around to it. Many years may go by, and, in a nostalgic twitch, you’ll return here for these links. They’ll be here.
My biggest regret is that we didn’t get to do the fraught genre of Celebrity Profiles. I was going to start with two classics …
• “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese in the April 1966 issue of Esquire, which has been studied and autopsied time and again.
• Pair this with “Do You Sleep in the Nude?,” a profile of Ava Gardner by Rex Reed, also from Esquire. (Not online, that I can find, but reprinted here in The New Journalism.)
For the sake of discussion, I wanted to contrast that with a couple of celebrity profiles from the current day that provoked a lot of debate about the genre, including self-indulgent writing, breaking conventional formats, crossing ethical boundaries, jealous writers, “girly” journalism and whatnot:
• “American Marvel,” Edith Zimmerman’s profile of actor Chris Evans from GQ in 2011.
• “The Full Tatum,” Jessica Pressler’s profile of Channing Tatum, also from GQ in 2011.
… and I was also going to ask the Jour494 students to fan out into the world and bring back a celebrity profile from the current crop and dissect it, looking for how it was assembled and where (or if) any journalistic compromises seem to have been made.
Some other readings we never got to:
• Maureen Tkacik’s 2011 takedown essay about Steve Jobs. This remarkable, measuredly brutal essay ran during a wave of hagiographic obituaries after Jobs’s death. It also gives us a lot to think about, argue about, and consider –not only about Jobs, but about our tech-consumer culture.
• I wanted us to read Dan Kois’s 2012 New York Times Magazine profile/story about Lynda Barry’s writing workshops, mostly for the pure pleasure of it.
• I wanted us to read a couple of Chris Jones (former Pollner prof, Esquire writer) articles: One, a gorgeous 201o profile of Roger Ebert, and the other, also from 2010, was a mysterious case of a man who won The Price is Right’s Showcase showdown with a correct (to the exact dollar) bid, which had never happened before.
• Another casualty of time and syllabus space: A 2012 story in Rolling Stone by Josh Eells, The Secret Life of Tom Gabel.
• Most college students have read (or were asked to read) journalist Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Nickel and Dimed. (If you haven’t read it, please do. One of our era’s finest works of immersion journalism.) I wanted us to read her essay on the pink-ribbon cancer culture industry, “Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer.” You can read the original Harper’s magazine version of it here. I recommend her book Bright-Sided: How Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. (I would add: “and Journalism,” so we could talk about the uses of skepticism in this relentlessly upbeat, big-hugs, magical-thinking age.)
• Jake Silverstein’s book, Nothing Happened and Then It Did, is something I’d like to give anyone starting out on his or her first journalism job. It’s a strange book, in that it reprints some of Jake’s longform nonfiction for magazines and alternates with fictional chapters about a “Jake Silverstein,” a young journalist in pursuit of big stories in the west Texas wastelands. I would much rather that young journos with wandering hearts and an appetite for adventure read this instead of Hunter S. Thompson.
• We were supposed to read Washington Post music critic Chris Richards’s page 1 tale of the hunt to find the ruins of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic’s missing “Mothership,” rumored to be buried in the kudzu jungles of suburban Maryland.
• I also wanted us to read Michael Kruse’s piece about a woman who died in her garage and whose body went undiscovered for a long time, even after the house went into foreclosure. The pop-culture angle here is difficult to determine, but I wanted us to examine the power in the details of the things we own and keep in our homes. Once you’ve read it, you really must read this.
• There’s something fun and startling about “Eating Beef Jerky at the Bodies Exhibit,” written in 2010 by Trent Moorman of The Stranger. I wanted to incorporate this piece somewhere between our talks about criticism and scene stories.
• Tony Earley’s 1998 Harper’s essay, “Somehow Form a Family,” about a childhood spent watching television (“The Brady Bunch” especially), almost made our reading assignments during the personal-essay stage. Here’s a link to the book version.
• It probably wouldn’t have been a huge hit in class, but someday check out Rebecca Brown’s “Hawthorne,” an essay about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, from her book American Romances.
• I had picked out the first chapter of Joshua Gamson’s “The Fabulous Sylvester,” a biography of the late, gender-bending disco singer of the ’70s/’80s. Just read the first 13 pages, “Get Ready for Me” — an amazing act of setting scene and character while describing a whole other world, in this case, that of South Central Los Angeles teenagers of the 1960s.
• More Susan Orlean — including her profile of schlock painter Thomas Kinkade. Just go ahead and get yourself a copy of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup.
• A little more Joan Didion — pictured above in her everyday guise, smoking next to her Corvette — including the title essay from The White Album.
• Take a look at David Samuels’s magazine stories in his collection Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Likewise, check out Nathan Rabin’s The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture.
• I had flagged a couple of chapters to share from Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.
Also don’t forget everything else ever written. Get busy. There will be a quiz, and it will be given by everyone in the writing business who thinks they’re smarter than you.
PS: If you want to share thoughts about books, I’m on Goodreads.