15 Nonfiction Books About Media And Writing That Every Journalist Needs To Read
I hate to be the 500th person to use this as an opening line, but 2017 was a weird year. Without even beginning to touch the ways in which the world burned, literally and figuratively, 2017 was the year my own life completely changed direction and set off for an as-of-yet unknown . It was the year I (unexpectedly) got into journalism school. I had three months to uproot my entire life and move halfway across the country to a new city, for a new school, for a life that just a handful of weeks earlier I'd been convinced was a pipe dream. There was nothing familiar. But books I knew. So I began to read. And I began to make a list of books for budding journalists - and by "budding journalist" I meant, uh, me.
This list is in no way The Most Comprehensive List out there. 50 Books for Journalism Students by BestCollegesOnline is a great start to building out your Goodreads' list, and in 2011 the Columbia Journalism Review polled some of the leading journalists, critics and scholars for "A Reading List for Future Journalists." This list is more of a personal roadmap - I've either read the title myself, or it's come recommended.
Though I've been in school for nearly six months, and have been working as a freelance writer for close to three years, it can still be difficult to self-identify as a "journalist." That term carries gravitas, it brings to mind white dudes in rolled up shirt sleeves or reporters shouting out questions during a press conference. But the more that I've read, the more that I've immersed myself in journalistic practices, the easier it's become to label myself as what I am - a journalist. And in this shifting media landscape, when journalists are continually being denigrated, I've found these books to be a life raft. Maybe you will, too.
'Elements of Style' by William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White
A succinct guide to writing, well, succinctly, this was the first book suggested to me after I received my acceptance letter. Now in its fourth edition, Strunk & White's teeny tiny little book (seriously, it's less than half an inch thick) is determined to make you a more concise writer.
'On Writing Well' by William Zinsser
A best-selling examination on the endless elegance and possibility of the nonfiction genre. From memoir to sports writing, William Zinsser's On Writing Well treats writing as a craft, often illuminating mistakes you didn't even realize you were making.
'On Writing' by Stephen King
Prolific writer Stephen King weaves his practice and his personal history into this nonfiction narrative about building a life around words. If you, like me, love reading about other writers' writing processes, this is a key work of memoir.
'In Cold Blood' by Truman Capote
Truman Capote pioneered a new literary genre with his 1965 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, and although the facts may have been a bit fudged in the process (Capote was notorious for not taking notes during interviews, insisting that he had trained himself to spontaneously retain conversations), it remains the Mama Book of true crime writing.
'The Creation of the Media' by Paul Starr
If you're feeling defeated by the endless stream of clickbait articles, Paul Starr's history of communication in America shows we got here - and where we might be headed.
'Evicted' by Matthew Desmond
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, Matthew Desmond's Evicted illustrates what lays at the heart of reporting — storytelling — and the ways in which we talk about poverty and class in America.
'The South Side' by Natalie Moore
Natalie Moore, a reporter for Chicago's WBEZ who herself grew up on the South Side, penned this lyrical portrait of modern segregation in American cities, marrying personal portraits and investigations in contemporary policies.
'Ida: A Sword Among Lions' by Paula J. Giddings
Though journalism had a reputation of being a white man's game (and still does, to some degree), Ida B. Wells, the activist, suffragette and journalist, wrote fiercely in the face of stereotypes and discrimination. Bonus: this book comes recommended by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
'The New Jim Crow' by Michelle Alexander
A key part of journalism is understanding that nothing happens in a vacuum, that cause and effect dictates, uh, everything. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander dives deep into the ways in which we talk about race today and the danger of forgetting (or refusing) history.
'The Race Beat' by Gene Roberts & Hank Klibanoff
An examination of how and why to cover race, particularly in a country as divided as the United States, Race Beat chronicles the ways in which reporting worked to actively shift perspectives during the Civil Rights Movement.
'Listening Is An Act of Love' by Dave Isay
Dave Isay, creator of StoryCorps, is a fierce proponent of listening. Listening Is An Act of Love illustrates the power of conversation through this collection of "best of" interviews.
'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' by Joan Didion
Joan Didion's writing in Slouching Towards Bethlehem is some of the most evocative, immersive prose I've ever read. Her ability to build comprehensive portraits of people in just a few sentences is an exercise in observation.
'Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America' by Melissa Harris-Perry
Professor and political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry outlines the ways in which media representation of specific groups - in this case, African-American women - dictates harmful stereotypes and seeps into self-identification.
"Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News" by Kevin Young
Published a year and a week after the 2016 election circus, Kevin Young's Bunk takes readers on a tour of the American phenomenon of the hoax, and details why fact-checking is a necessary art.
'Letters to a Young Journalist' by Samuel G. Freedman
Columbia University journalism professor Samuel Freedman strips away the pageantry that can sometimes lurk underneath narratives about journalism and gets to the heart of the profession — honesty, integrity, and hard work.