For a while now, I have been thinking about listing the journalism books that taught me the most. And so, with the blessings of a rough typology, here we go.
On the moral imperative of journalism: Simple, reporters should belong to the time they live in. In other words, their work should try to create a proportionate picture of their time. They should not be blind-sided by events.
1. Joseph Conrad did this well. He belonged to his time.
2. So did Orwell. And so, read this magnificent biography of 1984.
3. Assignment in Utopia, Eugene Lyons
4. Dust On The Road, Mahasweta Devi (her non-fiction writings).
5. Ear To The Ground, by K Balagopal
6. As Long As Sarajevo Exists, by Kemal Kurspahic (I cannot recommend this highly enough. In the thick of Milosevic’s onslaught on Bosnia,the reporters at Oslobodjenje kept bringing out their paper. What kept them going was their professional obligation to journalism; their commitment of the ideal of plurality; and the determination to bear witness, that nothing would go unrecorded. It is a book that speaks to our time — and reiterates principles we neglect).
Books like the one by Kurspahic should be mandatory reading. Even as journalists talk endlessly about holding power accountable, the dominant history of journalism is one of navel-gazing and missing the biggest stories of the time.
1. William Shirer missed the holocaust.
2. So did the NYT. Its miss became the subject of Laurel Leff’s investigation into the newsroom failure.
3. More instances? The US financial press missed the subprime crisis.
While on this point, you must watch Jon Stewart’s complete interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer on why the financial press failed to warn americans about subprime crash. Here is Part One. Part Two. And Part Three.
Thinking about journalism (and language)
1. Victor Klemperer, on the language of the third reich
Thinking about journalism (and how the brain processes information)
1. Robert Sapolsky, Behave
Thinking about journalism (and its capacity for pushing through change):
1. The Race Beat, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.
2. The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin
3. The Assassination of Lumumba, Ludo De Witte
4. Putin’s Kleptocracy, Karen Dawisha (These two books are not by reporters but they support my thesis, that perseverence can nail most truths to the door).
5. The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bethany McLean
6. The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk. A quote by Amira Hass, about the role of the press being to “monitor the centres of power” stays with me.
7. Seymour Hersh, Reporter
8. Every single book by Studs Terkel.
9. A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan
10. The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam
11. When a Tree shook Delhi, Manoj Mitta
12. The Fiction of Fact-Finding, Manoj Mitta
13. Blood On My Hands, Kishalay Bhattacharjee
14. Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy, by Sidharth Varadarajan
15. The Windrush Betrayal, by Amelia Gentleman (The UK’s version of India’s CAA/NRC).
16. The Arizona Project, by Michael F Wendland.
Journalism as practice
1. Once Upon A Distant War, William Prochnau
Thinking about journalism (and the role of curiosity)
1. Travels with Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuscinski
Thinking about Journalism (and the threats it faces)
1. Play It Again, Alan Rusbridger
2. On Russia’s attempts to control the internet. The Red Web. By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
3. This is not propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev (I am yet to read: Post-Journalism, by Andrey Mir; How To Lose The Information War, by Nina Jankowicz)
4. Everything by Anna Politikovskaya
5. Edward Snowden’s foreword in The Assassination Complex
6. Amusing Ourselves To Death, by Neil Postman
7. Arkady Ostrovsky, on the rise of Putin and the age of fake news
8. Everything by Masha Gessen.
Thinking about Journalism (news from other countries, on specific beats)
1. Will The Boat Sink The River, on the crisis facing Chinese peasants (I am waiting to read Dai Qing’s book on the Three Gorges Dam, not to mention Unholy, by Sarah Posner (on why evangelicals flocked to Trump); and Hun Sen’s Cambodia, by Sebastian Strangio.
2. China, again. A Death In the Lucky Holiday Hotel. This is on the downfall of Bo Xilai
3. Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner.
4. Thailand. A Kingdom In Crisis. (This book was duly banned by the regime)
5. Fools’ Rule, William Marsden’s scathing take on the politics around climate change. Just as good is his other book – on Alberta and shale oil.
6. A Sea in Flames, Carl Safina on Deepwater Horizon
Needless to say, this is an incomplete list. I have left out some of the most commonly read books — All The President’s Men; Everybody Loves A Good Drought; A Writer at War, Bernard Fall, etc — as well as a clutch of other books. The idea is to dwell on some of the relatively lesser known ones. Thank you for reading.