A place to browse and read quality longform non-fiction

I’m getting a kick out of being able to look over the shoulders of famous members of the Twitterati (like Gene Weingarten) to see who they are following. Gene has his serious side, having written a number of amazing in-depth articles, so it is not surprising that he follows Longform.org, a web site which collects long non-fiction articles deemed of sufficiently high quality by the site’s editors. (They also have previously unpublished articles.) It’s nice to see there are people who value the well-written, thoroughly researched non-fiction piece.

The Weingarten article that sticks in my mind most searingly is his examination of parents who had forgotten they had their small children in their car, went about their business during the day, inadvertently dooming their child. You can hardly believe anyone would have the courage to talk to these people, and the sensitivity to tell their heart-wrenching stories, but Gene pulls it off masterfully. The article is one of Longform’s “Editor’s Picks.”

See also the similar site, Longreads.


A lesson of this day of William and Kate: The universal attraction of a love story

I have not yet seen video of the Royal Wedding, but many people have, apparently. I heard on NPR that about a third of the world’s population, in fact, tuned in. Wow. That’s a big crowd.

There are, of course, many reasons people want to watch such things: the sheer spectacle, the rarity of the event, the historical pageantry. But I’m certain that the irresistable draw of a simple love story is also part of it. I know: the story of William and Kate is not of the average couple. But beyond the royal trappings and media circus, all we really have here is a young women and man falling in love and pledging their lives to each other.

Everyone loves a love story.

That is why I was drawn to the story of Beverly Eckert. At the center of her heart, before and after that horrible day in September 2001, was the person she shared her life with, her partner, her soul mate, her one true love — Sean Rooney. Readers of No Truer Hearts will find out about what Beverly Eckert was like growing up in Buffalo, making a career in the insurance industry, and then living a new sort of life after 9/11 as one of the most effective family member activists. But through all of this they will also see how two people fell in love, made a comfortable and happy life together, and then said goodbye for the final time one clear, chaotic, unforgettable September day.

Laura Hillenbrand: A master at making a true story sing

Laura Hillenbrand, author of "Seabiscuit" and "Unbroken."

It is inspiring to watch a master at work. Here is sentence one in chapter one of Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful rendering of the story of a horse, Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

Charles Howard had the feel of a gigantic onrushing machine: You had to either climb on or leap out of the way.

Boom. You’re hooked. One carefully crafted sentence leads you seamlessly into another. The end of one chapter has you at the end of a swing on a trapeze, your whole being eagerly reaching out for the beginning of the next chapter. Hillenbrand’s latest book is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, and her style is just as vivid and compelling.

In the predawn darkness of August 26, 1929, in the back bedroom of a small house in Torrance, California, a twelve-year-old boy sat up in bed, listening.

The boy is Louis Zamperini, a mischievous child who becomes a world-class runner, an airman in World War II, and ultimately a survivor against incredible odds. Zamperini’s life story stands as a testament to courage and grit. But in Hillenbrand’s capable hands it becomes as well a work of art. This is what literary non-fiction is all about: the truth told beautifully.

The “Three Cups of Tea” tempest, Part II: The question of authorship

Who really writes the books we read? And do we deserve to know?

Let’s start by returning to the Three Cups of Tea kerfuffle. In addition to the problems already mentioned, it is now clear that the cover of the book itself is a lie. It lists as co-authors Greg Mortenson (the one who established all those schools for girls) and David Oliver Relin (an experienced journalist whose work focuses on children’s issues). But in 2008, Relin was interviewed by Etude, a journal focused on “new voices in literary nonfiction” and hosted by the University of Oregon. Relin said that he did all the work of researching and writing the book, so naturally he was expecting to be credited as the sole author. But Viking insisted on including Mortenson’s name as co-author, even over Relin’s objections. Relin said that decision was “the only negative thing” about the whole project.

Who wouldn’t be upset about sharing credit for months and months of work with someone who only contributed some extensive interviews? But this sort of thing happens all the time. And even worse than this case is the Ghost Writer Syndrome, in which publishers give all credit to someone who did not write one word of a book. Sadly, the ghost writer has long been a fixture on the literary scene. Publishers for years have hitched the profit potentional of a celebrity or other notable person (like a president) to the literary skills of a professional writer. The frequent result? Truckloads of cash for the publisher, with some trickling down the food chain to the person who did all the work. And everyone winks at the subterfuge. (Sarah Palin write her own book? Now that would be a hoot!)

Some publishers make an effort at honesty by labeling collaborations appropriately: “as told to” or “Celebrity Name with Ghost Writer.” But others don’t, which I think is a mistake. Authors and publishers of non-fiction ask their readers to believe them. Doesn’t this request ring hollow if the authorship of the book is not spelled out? I’m not suggesting that anyone who contributed to the book should be listed as an author. But they should, at the very least, be mentioned somewhere inside. Then the bond of trust between author and reader can rise on a more firm foundation.