Thursday, November 19, 2015

Talking Heads – "The Book I Read" (1977)

I'm writing 'bout the
Book I read
I have to sing about the
Book I read

In 1999, New York University's Department of Journalism assembled a group of prominent journalists and journalism professors and asked them to come up with the top 100 works of 20th-century American journalism.

Like other "top 100” lists – the top 100 movies, or the top 100 English-language novels, or the top 100 rock albums – this one is a mix of choices that make you say "Of course!" and choices that make you say "What the hell!”

Here's a link to the list if you'd like to see it for yourself.

Michael Kinsley (a law school classmate of mine) trashed the list in a piece he wrote shortly after the list was announced.

Michael Kinsley
I have no problem with the thesis of Kinsley's article, which is that "best of" lists are pseudoscientific and hopelessly subjective.  But I take exception to a gratuitous shot he took at The John McPhee Reader, which was ranked #54 by the NYU judges.  

Kinsley wondered how could anyone think that the "pointless pointillism" of John McPhee belonged on the list.

"Pointless pointillism"?  (I bet Kinsley was so proud of that little bon mot.)  Really?  That's how you describe the work of the best English-language nonfiction writer of the last 50 years?

It's not clear what Kinsley's problem with McPhee is.  Kinsley thinks that the New Yorker of the William Shawn era – Shawn was that magazine's editor from 1952 until 1987 – was greatly overrated, and most (if not all) of the writing in The John McPhee Reader appeared in Shawn's New Yorker.  So that's one strike against McPhee.

I also suspect that Kinsley is dismissive of McPhee because he isn't a muckraker with a political agenda, and his books aren't exposés of political corruption or corporate wrongdoing.  The NYU list includes many examples of investigative or advocacy journalism – Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate coverage, Seymour Hersh's investigation of the My Lai massacre, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, to name just a few.  By contrast, McPhee’s writing is more timeless than timely.

The John McPhee Reader, which contains excerpts from his first dozen books (which date from 1965 to 1975), demonstrates the diversity of McPhee’s subject matter.

His first book – A Sense of Where You Are – profiles Bill Bradley during his senior year at Princeton.  (McPhee’s choice of Bradley as his subject was prescient.  After leading his Princeton team to the NCAA “Final Four” in 1965, Bradley attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, played ten years in the NBA, and was elected to three terms in the United States Senate.)  It is perhaps the best book about basketball ever written.

Bill Bradley in the 1965 NCAA tournament
The topics of his subsequent books include the Florida orange industry (Oranges), the region of New Jersey known as the Pine Barrens (The Pine Barrens), a 1968 U.S. Open tennis match (Levels of the Game), a tiny Scottish island (The Crofter and the Laird), an experimental lighter-than-air aircraft (The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed), and birch-bark canoes (The Survival of the Bark Canoe). 

I’ve read all of those books at one time or another, and they are all wonderful.  I’m confident that I would find them just as wonderful if I re-read them today – despite the fact that they were published between 40 and 50 years ago.

McPhee is 84 years old, and he is still writing.  In the last few years, he has written several short New Yorker pieces about his methodology of writing.  

One of those pieces (“Progression,” which appeared in the November 14, 2011 New Yorker) explains why McPhee chose the topics that he chose:

[A] general question about any choice of subject is, Why choose that one over all other concurrent possibilities?  Why does someone whose interest is to write about real people and real places choose certain people, certain places?  For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere.  They just go by in a ceaseless stream.  Since you may take a month, or ten months, or several years to turn one idea into a piece of writing, what governs the choice?  

I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college.  I checked off more than ninety per cent. 

John McPhee
The most recent of those pieces (“Omission,” which appeared in the September 14, 2015 New Yorker) discussed how McPhee turned an idea into an article or a book:

Writing is selection.  Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language.  Now keep going.  What is your next word?  Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? . . . 

You select what goes in and you decide what stays out.  At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in – if not, it stays out.  That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.  Forget market research.  Never market-research your writing.  Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material – that much and no more. . . . In the nineteen-seventies, observing the trials of an experimental aircraft, I intended at first to tell the story in a thousand words, but the tests and trials increased in number, changed, went on for years; a rich stream of characters happened through the scene; and the unfolding story had a natural structure analogous to a dramatic plot.  The ultimate piece ran at fifty-five thousand words in three consecutive issues of the magazine. 

My guess is that McPhee will eventually publish a book that includes all these New Yorker pieces.  If he does, I am confident that it will be the best book about how to write books ever written – and also that it will be a delight to read.

“The Book I Read” was released in 1977 on the Talking Heads’ debut album, which was titled Talking Heads: 77.

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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