Shop Notes

What we're reading: book world

Posted: May 25, 2017 | Tags: journalism, Summer reading

Small illustration of a closed book.Illustration by Sydney Ling, IRW


Workshop staffers have a few recommendations for summer readings.

I read "American Dream" by Jason DeParle of The New York Times, which follows the story of three women in Milwaukee and their experiences with the welfare system. Between the three women, there are 10 children from different fathers.

Each woman has a different story about her attempt to support herself and her children. It is an excellent example of using poignant, personal stories to depict and explain a national policy. 

— Catherine York

For a sample of how fraught life continues to be as a result of the great recession, take "Janesville: An American Story," by Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein, with you on vacation. It's a highly readable, well-reported story that focuses on Paul Ryan's hometown in Wisconsin, though seen through the eyes of the struggling, disadvantaged and broken, the Speaker of the House doesn't look like a favorite son.

Goldstein follows several families pre- and post-recession, and with a mix of vivid personal detail and thoroughly informed analysis, chronicles the decline of the middle class. One of her most disheartening conclusions is how difficult it is for factory workers to get meaningful re-training that leads to new careers.

— Lynne Perri

I first experienced Joan Didion in Madeleine Blais' Readings in Nonfiction class while I was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts in 1997. I was hooked instantly. Her prose, so confident yet fragile, so filled with imagery but also delicate in its description and treatment of human experience, made me want to continue studying reporting and writing.

Her 1988 piece "Insider Baseball" for The New York Review of Books opened to describe her take on politics this way, "It occurred to me, in California in June and in Atlanta in July and in New Orleans in August, in the course of watching first the California primary and then the Democratic and Republican national conventions, that it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations."

Imagine my mirth — as we processed a brutal 2016 election season — to learn about the release of "South and West," Didion's collection of notes, observations and interviews from decades-old reporting trips in the South and her home state, California. I recommend it to everyone, but especially to journalism students not just because Didion is a literary genius, but also because I think it's a helpful lesson to see a writer's process capturing small details and using those to transform a piece. 

— Margot Susca

"The Race Beat" by Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts is a great read, especially for journalists.  My introduction to this work came from a class assignment in my first college journalism course while I was a student at Morehouse College. It was fascinating not only to follow this story of the evolution of journalism through the inclusion of the emergence of broadcast, but obviously also to get a detailed account of the role of the media during the Civil Rights era. Growing up in Alabama, I was always exposed to various photographs and detailed accounts of hallmark Civil Rights moments. However, I never thought about the individuals who were behind the lenses and notepads capturing those moments. So for me, the book itself was almost like a "behind the scenes" look into an era I had heard so much about. 

In addition, I was also able to meet Hank Klibanoff, an author, in one of the last journalism courses at Morehouse. It was great to see that he was still highlighting important stories from that era. One of his recent projects he worked on that looks into unsolved racially motivated murders.   

— Jerrel Floyd

Paul Kalanithi spent his life trying to understand the nature of self-identity and consciousness. In his pursuit of these big-picture ideas, he studied literature at Stanford, philosophy at Cambridge and medicine at Yale. 

At the age of 36, Kalanithi — who was near the end of his neurosurgery residency at the Stanford University School of Medicine — was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. He was being groomed for a prestigious job. He was married. He had never smoked.

Being diagnosed with a terminal illness forced Kalanithi to do something that he had always wanted and expected to do: write a book. 

In “When Breath Becomes Air,” Kalanithi combines his knowledge of language and neuroscience with his education, life experiences and grim prognosis to get at the heart of self-identity, consciousness and to answer the question, What makes a life good and worth living?

Kalanithi’s memoir is hauntingly brilliant, unnervingly candid and contains prose that can stand-up against Didion, Wolfe, Talese, Thompson or any of the other literary nonfiction giants.

— Josh Benson

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