Book-form journalism is alive and well: Here are 3 highly recommended reads

In a wide-ranging discussion about reporting and writing with Drew Philp over coffee in early May at Trinosophes, he offered this observation:

“Economically, the healthiest area of journalism right now is books.”

The comment struck Holly and me as something that should be obvious when you walk past the book table at Costco, but it also flies in the face of conventional wisdom in this digital decade.

The 31-year-old Philp described for us his next ambitious book project. Details to come. He’s earned a certain cachet with “A $500 House in Detroit” and his free-lance projects for The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The Detroit Free Press and other media.

His powerful TED Talk, posted April 25, has attracted almost 900,000 views. It’s riveting.

The day Holly and I met Philp in the café near Eastern Market, he had just returned to Detroit from a Guardian assignment on the border of Virginia and West Virginia, covering protests by tree sitters who want to block construction of a pipeline through the hills of Appalachia.

In our mind, he is a walking definition of a “shoe-leather reporter” because he hiked an hour to Peters Mountain to interview people on all sides of this controversy. The axiom is meant to be a compliment to persistent writers who wear down the soles of their shoes finding and talking to sources.

“A $500 House” — a first-person account of the renovation of an abandoned house in a fire-scarred Detroit neighborhood — struck me as a book that should be required reading for journalism students. We’re now working with Drew to explore ways to connect him with our Oakland U students.

He has a keen eye for the details that give a story authenticity. He has what Hemingway called a built-in bullshit detector. He offers an embedded view of the revival of Detroit that is far more complicated than the current media framing.

This is also a tale of true courage. If you follow Drew on Twitter, you know he’s alarmed and anguished about vacant-house fires on the blocks around his rehabbed home near the Grace Lee and James Boggs School south of Poletown.

Philp’s mesmerizing first book is one of three by journalists that I’ve read this May.

Ronan Farrow

Another role-model young reporter is Ronan Farrow, impossibly accomplished at age 30, new winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his work investigating allegations of sexual misconduct against film producer Harvey Weinstein.

Farrow is also a human rights lawyer and activist who earned a college degree at 15 and began his study of law at Yale at 16.

For his new book “ War on Peace” about the decline of American diplomacy and the rise of a military-dominated foreign policy, Farrow interviewed every living former secretary of state from Henry Kissinger to Rex Tillerson.

Farrow knows the territory. He worked for the U.S. State Department from 2009-2012 and is a first-class storyteller.

I would not normally devote a week to a 313-page analysis of U.S. foreign policy, but this is truly a page-turner. Virtually every chapter begins with an absorbing anecdote that sucks in the reader.

Most compelling is his harrowing interview with Afghani warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, a controversial ally of the U.S. in the post-9/11 military operation against the Taliban.

Jake Tapper

Finally, for lighter reading, I thoroughly enjoyed Jake Tapper’s “The Hellfire Club.” Set during the era of Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, the novel offers intriguing insights into the reasons why newly minted politicians head off to Washington with earnest plans to do the right thing and then find themselves bogged down in a moral swamp.

Tapper repeatedly points out that “The Hellfire Club” is a work of fiction, and we should be careful about drawing parallels to today’s political climate, but … I cannot recall ever reading a novel that had 11 pages of source notes.

Note: This post was updated to note the correct number of views on Philp’s TED Talk. Oops. We were only off by about 850,000. 

Three journalism books

 

 

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1 comments On Book-form journalism is alive and well: Here are 3 highly recommended reads

  • I connected with your commentary, Gilberts! I LOVED the “$500 House” book. Equal to me admiration for what he accomplished is the knowledge that I could never do that. Next, I heard the Ronan Farrow interview on Fresh Air and put them book on reserve. He’s an accomplished reporter, and surprisingly, accessible to listen to–I say surprisingly, because as you mention, his list of accomplishments in impressive for one so young. Last, I also heard an interview with Jake Tapper and also put THAT book on reserve! Right behind you, I guess!

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