Perhaps we ought to be a little more understanding of the compromises involved in creating art, and that getting bent out of shape once certain liberties are exposed (when just a minute ago we were so thoroughly enthralled!) seems a reaction based more on our uneasiness with our own vulnerability and credulousness than any serious authorial wrongdoing.
Real life is messy. And as a general rule, the more theatrical the story you hear, and the more it divides the world into goodies vs baddies, the less reliable that story is going to be. […] One of the central problems with narrative nonfiction is that the best narratives aren’t messy and complicated, while nonfiction nearly always is.
Ira Glass curated this collection of nonfiction. The New Kings of Nonfiction is a selection of favorites that he’s had filed away for a while, articles that he keeps passing along to others. The focus is on good storytelling found in original reporting:
I wish there were a catchy name for stories like this. For one thing it would’ve made titling this collection a lot easier. Sometimes people use the phrase “literary nonfictioni” for work like this, but I’m a snob when it comes to that phrase. I think it’s for losers. It’s pretentious, for one thing, and it’s a bore. Which is to say, it’s exactly the opposite of the writing it’s trying to describe. Calling a piece of writing “literary nonfiction” is like daring you to read it.
Not only is it a pretty good collection, but almost all of them are available online, in their entirety. Someone is listening to my prayers. My comments on each, roughly listed from Must Read to Don’t Bother…
“Losing the War” is easily my favorite work in the book (made obvious by the dog-ears). And I tend to have severe World War II nausea, so I was surprised to like it so much. Lee Sandlin explores the “collective anxiety attack” of the war, the impressions of the war that Americans got through the weak, cheerful reporting from the frontlines, and how we remember and how we forget. Highly recommended.
In one of the better tales in the book, Michael Lewis wrote about “Jonathan Lebed’s Extracurricular Activities.” Lebed, at 15 years old, was called out by the Securities and Exchange Commission for stock market manipulation and doesn’t seem very much phased by it. Fun story.
Jack Hitt‘s “Toxic Dreams: A California Town Finds Meaning in an Acid Pit” is another good one that covers ballooning litigation over the Stringfellow Acid Pit, a local dumping ground made to spur business. Naturally, with a name like that, you’re going to end up with a lawsuit. This one has 4,000 plaintiffs and doesn’t look to end anytime soon. Recommended.
Michael Pollan bought a cow and writes about its journey from birth to beef in “Power Steer.” And he touches on how our food chain all interconnects and the twin scourges of oil and cheap corn.
Though I’m not much for card games, I did like James McManus‘ story in “Fortune’s Smile.” McManus learns the ins and outs of no-limit hold’em and enters the World Series of Poker, and walks out with $250,000. A lot of the lingo flew over my head, but the spirit is right and the story is good.
“Tales of the Tyrant” is Mark Bowden‘s profile of Saddam Hussein. The scale of the vanity and self-delusion are incredible. It makes the guy a lot more human and a lot more disgusting. Pretty good read.
“Crazy Things Seem Normal, Normal Things Seem Crazy” is Chuck Klosterman‘s profile of Val Kilmer. I’d recommend it, keeping in mind what Ira Glass says about Klosterman in the introduction: When Klosterman does reporting, the superstructure of ideas and the aggressiveness with which he states those ideas are a big part of what makes the stories stand out.”
“Shapinsky’s Karma” [excerpt] by Lawrence Weschler follows an improbably cheerful, persistent Indian man who has found his calling in promoting the artwork of Harold Shapinksy, an undiscovered peer of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and others, who is in his 80s at the time.
Bill Buford reports on hanging out with a bunch of rowdy Manchester United loyalists in “Among the Thugs.” It takes a while to warm up, but the later bits about group psychology and inevitable soccer mob violence are good (and downright scary).
“Host,” by David Foster Wallace, is the longest in the book (surprise!). It’s a profile of a conservative radio personality in California. I couldn’t get much into it, but I do like this bit from one of the many sidebars:
It’s hard to understand Fox News tags like “Fair and Balanced,” “No-Spin Zone,” and “We Report, You Decide” as anything but dark jokes, ones that delight the channel’s conservative audience precisely because their claims to objectivity so totally enrage liberals, whose own literal interpretation of the tag lines makes the left seems dim, humorless, and stodgy.
Dan Savage‘s “My Republican Journey” is about being homosexual and infiltrating a local Republican group. Eh.
“Six Degrees of Lois Weinberg” is Malcolm Gladwell’s exploration of one woman’s social network. Not recommended.
“The Hostess Diaries: My Year at a Hot Spot” by Coco Henson Scales is okay, but feels out of place here and doesn’t measure up to the other writing in the book.