…These are the books I generally recommend to students considering a career in journalism, or to young journalists. They’re all American. Boo, shame on me. They’re not the result of a systematic search; they’re just books that struck me , when I had been a reporter for a few years and was looking around for examples to look up to, as extraordinary exploits of reporting and writing.
• The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America, by Nicholas Lemann: A profoundly ambitious piece of history and of political journalism, Lemann’s book traces the migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the middle decades of the 20th Century. Lemann follows it all at three levels. First, the personal stories of individual families as they uprooted, moved north, and tried to make their way in this strange new reality. Second, the municipal politics of the Daley administration in Chicago, trying to cope with a massive influx of new residents and the racial backlash in response, and making a lot of poor policy decisions in response. Finally, the Johnson White House, led by a president eager to one-up those snooty Kennedys and inclined to overreach as it grappled with this historic change. All these stories interwoven throughout. Sweeping and detailed.
• Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean: Maclean was past 70, with a career as an English prof behind him, when he wrote his first book, the classic memoir A River Runs Through It. He was working on this second book when he died, and in its wisdom and deep feeling, it is something only an old man could have written. In the vigour and imagination of its journalism it shames younger reporters. This is the story of 16 smokejumpers who parachuted onto a Montana mountain fire in 1949 and of the way 13 of them came to die or be fatally injured within an hour. Maclean pieces together each man’s action, wonders what each was thinking, puts himself in their place, wonders why he grew old and they never would.
• Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, by Gary Wills: 320 pages about a 272-word speech. Wills analyzes the structure, the writing process, the context of political speech in general in Lincoln’s era, the classical Greek antecedents, the Biblical references, the political repercussions. To me this book shows how much it’s possible to care about a writing assignment, and about the English language in general.
• Trail Fever, by Michael Lewis: The last book to make the list, and I believe the least-known one on it. Michael Lewis, the Wall Street investment guy who wrote Liar’s Poker and, in 1995, was hired by The New Republic to write a weekly chronicle from the 1996 presidential election trail. This book collects (and revises) those diaries. Lewis’s observational style, the way he lets his subjects’ behaviour drive the story, was a huge influence on my Parliamentary sketches when we launched the National Post. But don’t let that stop you from reading Lewis, whose one book about electoral politics is one of the funniest political books I ever read.
So that’s the list, not one I cooked up for you but one I’ve given, many times, to people who want to do this for a living. If I were coming up with a list now I’d probably include some Canadian books. Two that come to mind are Le Tricheur/Le Naufrageur, Jean-François Lisée’s Proustian two-volume chronicle of Robert Bourassa’s two years from the fall of Meech to the fall of Charlottetown; and The Young Politician/ The Old Chieftain, Donald Creighton’s epic biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. The quality of Creighton’s prose alone is far superior to most political writing today, more than half a century later.