Summer’s just about over for us college professors and for me, it also means an end to summer reading. This is about the only time of the year that I read fiction, and in the next couple days I’m putting up a review of a novel I received earlier this summer that deals with sports and journalism. But soon it’s back to the textbooks and student papers
Meanwhile, here are a few other books that have grabbed my attention lately:
In Search of Willie Morris (2006), by Larry L. King. The author is a journalist, novelist and playwright proably best known for The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas — not the retiring TV interview show host. This book is a memoir about his friendship with the great Mississippi-born journalist and novelist of the title. Willie Morris (1934-1999) left his most lasting mark on journalism in the late Sixties in New York as the editor of Harper’s Magazine and later wrote, among other things, The Courting of Marcus Dupree (1983), one of the best books I’ve read about both football and the South.
As a result of reading King’s book, I’ve gone back to what’s perhaps my favorite memoir. I’m reading Morris’ North Toward Home(1967) wishing that I had had the writing chops or chutzpah that it took to write your life story at the age of 33. Morris follows his own life from his boyhood in Yazoo City, Miss., to his tenure as the crusading editor of The Daily Texan at the University of Texas, to a sojourn in England as a Rhodes Scholar. It ends as he’s about to take over the editorship of Harper’s, America’s oldest magazine.
I’m also looking at The American Future: A History (2008), by the British historian Simon Schama. He’s done interesting work in the media in recent years as a contributor to the Financial Times. And I have an indelible memory of sitting in our London flat and watching him spar with the boorish John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on a panel of commentators analyzing Election Night in America on the BBC in November 2008.
Schama has a knack for mining large historical trends out of art, popular culture and other more prosaic aspects of life. This book presents a look at America through Schama’s “outsider” takes on the divisive issues of war, religion, race and immigration.
And two more which I’m leafing through, as they’re made up of shorter pieces: Public Editor #1 (2005) by Daniel Okrent and Everything They Had (2007) by David Halberstam.
Okrent, a long-time editor at Time Magazine, became the Times’ first public editor in 2003. In the newspaper business, this person, also called an “ombudsman” at some papers, is designated as a reader advocate in cases where someone feels unfairly treated by the newspaper’s coverage. It’s a tough position — the person who fills it is often caught between readers who aren’t going to be happy if the public editor doesn’t support their grievance and the newsroom which… Well, just let me invoke the old joke that “Journalists don’t have a thin skin, they have NO skin.” So far it’s an interesting look at the public perception of newspapers, particularly the Times, a favorite whipping boy of the Right for years.
And the book by Halberstam is a compilation of previously uncollected pieces, mostly from magazines, by the distinguished journalist who died in a car crash in 2007. He’s best known for his reporting about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, economics and the media itself. But some of his best books were about sports, including The Breaks of the Game (1980), the most insightful writing about pro basketball I’ve ever read.
I’ve always been an enthusiastic fan of his books and I know I’ll enjoy this one. When he was fatally injured in an accident near Berkeley, Calif., he was on his way to an interview with former NFL quarterback Y.A. Tittle for a book he was writing about the 1958 NFL season and the legendary Baltimore Colts-New York Giants championship game. It’s a loss to all sports fans, and lovers of good writing, that he never got to finish.