My list of the 100 books every journalist should read includes many works that show up over and over on lists like that. However, there were a few standard choices that I deliberately rejected for quality reasons. I’ll be listening to responses to my list and watching for others to come out; some books may work their way into my favor. But these, never:
The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White
This little book is a talisman to many journalists. They insist that they follow its precepts, and preach that everyone should. But this is a book about style, not substance. That is to say, the principles Strunk set out, redone by his student White, are opinions about the way they think “proper” English should be written to appear stylish; these are not grammar rules — or, at least, not correct grammar rules in many cases. That’s one big problem: “Elements” gets treated as a grammar book, and it’s very much not. The other problem is that their advice is often akin to newspaper horoscopes and psychic readings: so vague and generic as to leave every reader thinking it applies perfectly to him or her. My objections are more tartly explained by linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
What I am objecting to is not the style advice in Elements, which might best be described the way The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes Earth: mostly harmless. Some of the recommendations are vapid, like ‘Be clear’ (how could one disagree?). Some are tautologous, like ‘Do not explain too much.’ (Explaining too much means explaining more than you should, so of course you shouldn’t.) Many are useless, like ‘Omit needless words.’ (The students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.) Even so, it doesn’t hurt to lay such well-meant maxims before novice writers.
… But despite the ‘Style’ in the title, much in the book relates to grammar, and the advice on that topic does real damage. It is atrocious. Since today it provides just about all of the grammar instruction most Americans ever get, that is something of a tragedy. Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them, but that is not true of the grammar stipulations.
‘Use the active voice’ is a typical section head. And the section in question opens with an attempt to discredit passive clauses that is either grammatically misguided or disingenuous.
We are told that the active clause ‘I will always remember my first trip to Boston’ sounds much better than the corresponding passive ‘My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.’ It sure does. But that’s because a passive is always a stylistic train wreck when the subject refers to something newer and less established in the discourse than the agent (the noun phrase that follows ‘by’).
On Writing, Stephen King
Judging by the responses I got when I asked colleagues for list recommendations, “On Writing” is coming up fast on “Elements” as the writing advice book that says “I am serious about writing.” Perhaps saying something about our culture, this new writer’s bible says even less about writing than the old one. Much of the book is not writing advice at all, but Stephen King’s memoir. Which is lovely, and King’s a good writer if you like that kind of thing. But if you want to get better at writing, you won’t get far with this book. When he does get around to advice, Jay Parini says it best in a review from The Guardian:
King has nothing much to say about writing that isn’t obvious. ‘In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts,’ he explains with professorial solemnity: ‘narration, description, and dialogue.’ He warns us: ‘The adverb is not your friend.’ He advises writing behind a closed door: ‘It is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.’ Oh dear.
Both “Elements” and “On Writing” are feel-good books. They give you squishy advice that is easy to follow because it means so little, and thus they make you feel like you are Doing Well. But if you really want to become a better writer, you have to get into the nitty-gritty of language and storytelling. I already have one feel-good book on my list, by Lawrence Block. That’s enough.
The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm
One of my esteemed colleagues said of this work that it was the only book she has ever thrown across a room in disgust. This is Malcolm writing about another journalist, Joe McGinniss, and his reporting on Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald for his book “A Fatal Vision.” McGinniss began the book at MacDonald’s suggestion, with a profit-sharing agreement and the understanding that the book would help MacDonald, who was accused of murdering his wife. Over the course of reporting, McGinniss became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, though, and his book makes that case. At least that’s the story as Malcolm (channeling MacDonald) tells it. MacDonald, insisting he had no idea McGinniss had switched sides, sued, leading to Malcolm’s book (originally two articles in The New Yorker). Malcolm considers McGinniss — and, by extension, every reporter ever — a con. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she writes.
MacDonald was convicted. He briefly got out of prison on an appeal based on the length of time it took to bring his case to trial, but the Supreme Court eventually overturned that decision. He has lost a long string of appeals since then — the most recent just a short time ago. His suit against McGinniss was settled out of court.
McGinniss challenges every inch of Malcolm’s argument. As eminent a journalist as Fred W. Friendly — whom I respect so much that he’s got two entries on my 100 list — reviewed “The Journalist and the Murderer” when it appeared and called bullshit both on her standing to criticize another journalist for buddying up to a source and on her ludicrously egotistical declaration that she could, through McGinniss, tar every journalist with the same brush.
Despite this, the book has in some circles become revered, as evidenced by its placement on many other “top journalism books” lists. That some journalists believe the tripe Malcolm wrote proves not that all journalists are cons, but that some journalists are easily conned.
Personal History, Katharine Graham
Katharine Graham succeeded to the post of publisher of the Washington Post upon the suicide of her husband. She led the paper through the Watergate scandal. In this, her autobiography, she writes not only about the Post but also her personal life.
The autobiography is a dangerous tool. Time and again, writers who attempt one end up telling more truths than they think they have. This is true even when, as with Graham, a writer purports to be self-reflective and humbly describe her own foibles. What you learn from someone’s autobiography isn’t just in the words on the page; it’s in the choices of what to leave in and what to leave out, what to excuse and what to present unadorned. My judgment of an autobiography depends in large part on how much, at the end, I like the person. (This is different for biographies, in which the subject’s life is filtered through someone else’s sensibilities. In an autobiography, you get the person as he or she wishes to be seen — and so, judgment of the book is inevitably judgment of the person as well.)
I don’t like Katharine Graham. I don’t like the way she treated workers. I don’t like the way she blames her parents and her husband for her own failings, describing their failings in exquisite detail. I don’t like the way she repeatedly played the “little woman” in thrall to big men like her husband, Post editor Ben Bradlee and investor Warren Buffett. I don’t like the way she epitomized the publisher who pretends to identify with the staff while actually being most comfortable with her fellow plutocrats.
This book is well-written, and well-liked. But it doesn’t belong on a top 100 list about journalism.