Books changed my life. If I hadn’t read Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun when I was 16, I wouldn’t have gone to work in Oslo after finishing school. And if I hadn’t read Milan Kundera and other Czech writers just before the collapse of communism I wouldn’t have headed to teach English in Prague after university. Both were formative experiences for me and taught me more about life than any academic courses.
Books not only educated, inspired and entertained me. They opened up new horizons, fed my curiosity and sparked a desire to travel more, learn more and experience more. Without a love of books I would, quite simply, never have become a journalist.
When I made this point to a recent group of journalist students, one of them asked me to send a list of books I would recommend reading over the summer. This is the result. Not all the books are the work of journalists and they are certainly not all about journalism. But I am convinced that reading just some of these works will not only make you better writers but more-rounded human beings. Happy reading!
- Everything by George Orwell. Start with one of the essay collections – Politics and the English Language is a must for any writer – and move on to Homage to Catalonia (his account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War), Down and Out in Paris and London (living hand-to-mouth in the French and British capitals) and The Road to Wigan Pier (poverty in northern England in 1930’s). Always passionate, political and provocative.
- Anything by Ryszard Kapuscinski – Great Polish foreign correspondent who covered dozens of coups and wars in his 50 year career. The Emperor (about the last days of Ethiopian strongman Haile Selassie) and The Shah of Shas (about the overthrow of Iranian autocrat in 1979) are classics of ‘reportage’. The Shadow of the Sun is a breathless compilation of four decades of writing about Africa. Often reads like fiction – and Kapuscinski has been criticized since his death for being fast with the facts.
- Martha Gellhorn – One of the 20th century’s great correspondents. The Face of War covers most conflicts from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s to the Central American wars of the 1980s. Beautiful prose and brilliant journalism from this courageous St Louis native.
- Ernest Hemingway – Although better known as a novelist, Hemingway’s terse, muscular and vivid reporting about the Spanish Civil War and World War II changed the face of American journalism.
- Timothy Garton Ash – Astute chronicler of the ‘history of the present’ from an Oxford historian who has been an eyewitness to most major upheavals of the last 30 years. Facts are Subversive is his latest collection of thoughtful and provocative articles and essays.
- Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a trippy, visceral account of the Vietnam War and the inspiration behind the film ‘Apocalypse Now,’ which he wrote the screenplay for.
- Sebastian Junger’s War – the basis for the documentary ‘Restrepo’ – follows the travails of a US platoon in a remote corner of Afghanistan. War up close and personal.
- The Forever War – Dexter Filkins. Brave, intimate, deeply human look at the Iraq and Afghan wars from award-winning New York Times Correspondent
- Nick Davies – Flat Earth News. Cover blurb: ‘An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media.’ For once, a book lives up to its billing.
- Andrew Marr – My Trade. A short, personal, clever and funny history of British journalism from the former Independent editor and BBC political editor.
- John Simpson – Strange Places, Questionable People and A Mad World, My Masters are the first two volumes of the BBC World Affairs Editor’s autobiographical writings. Incredible anecdotes, erudite writing and useful journalist tips.
- Jeremy Bowen – War Stories. The addiction and the horror of war reporting from the BBC’s Middle East Editor. Made into a moving documentary available free on YouTube.
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser’s best-selling guide to writing clear, clean and compelling prose.
- Journalism – a very short introduction. Pithy and provocative exploration of issues facing journalist profession from Ian Hargreaves, former Independent Editor.
- International News and Reporting – Edited by John Owen and Heather Purdey. Very readable, unstuffy look at how the world is reported by some of its leading practioners.
- The Economist Style Guide – Mercifully short and witty guide to writing clear English.
- Europe, An Intimate Journey – Jan Morris. 50 years of European changes witnessed by the greatest living travel writer in English.
- In Europe – Geert Mak. Immensely erudite journey through Europe’s past undertaken at the tail end of the 20th century by a brilliant Dutch journalist/historian.
- Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Searing story of controversial Dutch politician’s voyage from a traditional Muslim upbringing in Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia to emancipation and then life under armed guard in the Netherlands and the United States.
- Don’t Mention the Wars: A Journey through European Stereotypes – Tony Connelly. Entertaining account of Europe’s peoples by Irish TV journalist based in Brussels.
- Ghosts of Spain – Giles Tremlett. Travels through a country’s hidden past by long-time Guardian correspondent in Madrid.
- Blood River – Tim Butcher. Terrifying tale of journey through Congo on foot by Daily Telegraph correspondent in Africa.
- Anything by Graham Greene, a former journalist and one of 20th century’s greatest writers – Monsignor Quixote, The Quiet American, The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, The Honorary Consul, Our Man in Havana and A Burnt-Out Case will do for starters.
- George Orwell – 1984 and Animal Farm. Obviously.
- John Fowles – The Magus. Mind-games on a Greek island.
- The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. Tragicomic tale about the lives of 11 misfit journalists working on a dying newspaper closely resembling the International Herald Tribune.
- Milan Kundera – Deeply political, sensual – and sometimes pretentious – Czech writer. Read the earlier stuff: The Joke, Laughable Loves, Unbearable Lightness of Being (also a decent film with Daniel Day Lewis.)
- Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451. Terrifying dystopia.
- Knut Hamsun – Early novels Hunger, Pan and Victoria about drifters and loners prefaced much of 20th century literature and won this great Norwegian writer a Nobel Prize for Literature. Became a Nazi supporter in later life, which can sour reading of his work.
- Anything by Columbian former correspondent Gabriel Garcia Marquez – especially Love in the Time of Cholera and No One Writes to the Colonel. Won Nobel Literature Prize for One Hundred Years of Solitude.
- Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness. Kurtz goes AWOL in Belgian Congo. “The horror, the horror.”
- Ernest Hemingway – Farewell to Arms (about First World War) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (about Spanish Civil War) both based on former reporter’s experiences.
- Albert Camus – Trilogy of novels set in colonial Algeria – The Outsider, The Plague and The Fall – all hugely influential and thought-provoking. Also great French journalist and resistance leader.
- Evelyn Waugh – Scoop is a must-read for journalists. Hilarious comedy-of-errors about docile, unambitious countryside reporter sent to cover war in Africa.
- Anything by Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Hermann Hesse.