Tag Archives: journalism

Favorite nonfiction reads of 2013

I’ve read 46 books so far this year, toward my goal of 50. I’ve been challenging myself to read longer books, classics, and especially nonfiction this year, so although I don’t think I’ll reach the same book total as last year (52), I have read more pages in less time! This year I participated in two book clubs: the mail-based one with college friends and a neighborhood book and pub club, which have both motivated me to delve into titles I might not otherwise choose on my own.

My main reading goal this year was to read 20 nonfiction books, and I’ve read 18 so far! I haven’t been a big nonfiction reader since high school and college required textbooks made nonfiction seem dull and tedious, although I have remained quite the news junkie and a devoted subscriber to various newspapers and magazines. Not to mention that my entire career revolves around nonfiction!

This year I discovered some truly great nonfiction reads: gripping, moving, inspiring, well-written stories that resonate all the more because they are true. I’ve learned about things I would have never imagined: the astronaut selection process, the intricacies of mountaineering, the social strata of Mumbai slums, the symbolism of street art, the security levels in mental hospital wards. I got a lot of suggestions from the book The New New Journalism, which is an anthology of interviews with contemporary non-fiction writers about their research and writing processes. Highly recommended for writers and readers alike.

Here are my five favorites from this year:

1. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in The Bronx by Adrian LeBlanc

510TA2HMBJLWow. I cannot say enough good things about this incredible family saga. This is the kind of book that sinks into your skin and stays with you for a very long time after. Random Family is the sprawling tale of three generations of a Puerto Rican family and their intertwining stories as they navigate all of life’s triumphs and obstacles in the South Bronx, one of the nation’s most notoriously rough urban neighborhoods. This book reveals a hidden world of gang culture, state prisons, drug rings and addictions, the welfare and food stamp system, teen pregnancy, and all other intricacies of poverty…right here in New York City.

LeBlanc won all sorts of journalism awards for this work, and with good reason. The portraits of her characters are rich and honest: I found myself rooting for somewhat naive, optimistic teenage Coco and her various children, clinging to every hope that they would just survive. But some of the other characters I absolutely loathed. Yes, there are welfare queens and crack addicts in this book, but there are also just people. It helps the reader understand the crippling hopelessness and insurmountable challenges of poverty in a way that mere statistics and headlines can’t capture. I raced through this book in three days and didn’t want to let go…and I still can’t, really. Read more about Random Family here.

(P.S. The New York Times just published an absolutely wonderfully written, LENGTHY expose on the current state of homeless children in the city, focusing on a portrait of one girl, Dasani, and her family. It’s like a crash course for Random Family. Check it out here. Hope for print journalism!)

2. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

emperor-of-all-maladiesConfession: I’ve never been that interested in science. It has never fascinated or enthralled me the way it has a number of my peers. But I think if a book like Emperor of All Maladies had existed when I was studying, say, high school biology, my entire outlook would have been transformed for the better.

This is an incredible feat of historical and scientific research: a massive biopic of cancer from its first recorded victims, throughout the constant battle for a cure, to modern-day medicine’s astonishing abilities — and shortcomings. What I loved about this book is that it wasn’t just about the development of chemotherapy or experiments conducted on childhood leukemia victims, it also analyzed the intersection of the disease with culture. Mukherjee, an oncologist himself, delves into the origins of cancer’s first poster child, the foundation of the American Cancer Society, the explosion of fundraising for breast cancer research. It is all truly, truly fascinating. A book for everyone because I am certain that everyone has had their life impacted by cancer, in one way or another. Read more here.

3. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

220px-DWCityI love books that focus entirely on one specific moment in history and really dig deep into the details. This book juxtaposes the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of constructing the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, and H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer. The biographies intersect only slightly — Holmes constructs a “murder hotel” to lure in his victims who are visiting the nearby World’s Fair — so the construction of the book is a little odd, but as Larson explains, he chose these two contrasting stories to highlight the stark contrast in how men choose to live their lives. There are men who live to illuminate the world (literally, in Burnham’s case) by sharing their genius, and there are men who live only to bring darkness and death.

The H.H. Holmes chapters were obviously edge-of-your-seat material, and the kind of thing that infiltrated my nightmares for a bit after, but I really enjoyed the World’s Fair bits, too. Burnham and his team — which included Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius who gave us Central Park in New York — were racing against the clock, limited resources, an uncooperative climate and landscape to construct a miniature city so magnificent and inspiring that it would put all the nay-sayers in NYC and D.C. (two much more developed and reputable American cities at the time) to shame. A treat for all history buffs. Read more here.

4. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

urlI wrote a lengthy post about this book earlier this year after reading it. I would still heartily recommend it. So, so, so powerful. After you read it, watch this CBS story about Louis Zamperini, see what a humble and grateful man he is and his relationship with the author of his biography, and cry all over again. GAH.

You will have a lot of feels from reading this book, but the good feels outweigh the bad ones, I promise. Zamperini is incredible, his story is incredible, this book is incredibly put together and well-researched. It has also sparked my interest in reading Seabiscuit (Hillenbrand’s other bestseller) and other military nonfiction, like Flags of Our Fathers, which is awaiting me on my bookshelf. Check out Unbroken here.

5. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

urlThis darling little gem is a must for book lovers! This is the record of letter-based correspondence between Ms. Helene Hanff of New York, an avid reader, and stodgy bookshop employee Frank Doel of London that begins as purely business relationship and blooms into a charming long-distance, long-lasting friendship. (Warning: Quite a bittersweet ending.) It’s almost too whimsically wonderful to be true. Check it out here.

What are your favorite non-fiction reads?

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Being a Professional Grammar Queen

workI realize I haven’t written much of anything about my job since when I accepted the position in August. It’s hard to believe it’s already been six months, as of yesterday, since my start date! The time has passed quickly, but it’s also astounding to me just how much I’ve learned in that short period of time.

When I meet new people and they ask me what I do for a job, I usually reply, “I’m a copy editor for a trade magazine.” Short, sweet, and simple. To some people — accountants, mainly — this sounds really cool. I avoid using my technical title, “desk editor,” because that is even more vague to the outside world. But does anyone know what copy editors do, really?

I certainly didn’t know what a copy editor was when I was high school, which is the age when you are most likely to be asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I received plenty of suggestions from my teachers: go to medical school (from my biology teacher, unaware of how embarrassingly squeamish I am), be a female engineer (from my calculus teacher, who sadly did not realize that I am a word- and not a numbers-person), be this, be that. But no one ever suggested copy editing!

Which is too bad, really, because copy editing is a job that was developed just for people like me.

I get to read stuff all day (news stories, continuing education lessons, whooo!) and wield my Grammar Queen Red Pen of Power. JK, I do almost all editing on the computer. And if that weren’t enough to delight this little bookworm/news junkie, I get to do page design, too.

Page design is my favorite. It’s a combination of creativity and precision. I get to choose arrangements and colors that are pleasing to the eye, and I also get to do really finicky things like make sure everything is lined up juuuust right and that the spaces between, say, two articles is the ideal amount (if anyone is wondering, it’s one pica, or 1/6 of an inch). There’s rulers and grids and color palettes and FONTS, so many fonts involved. Adobe InDesign is my happy place.

In short, my job is to take information the reporters have gathered and present it to the reader in a way that is accessible, organized, and appealing. You could also say I put words and pictures on pieces of paper. Ha.

I also get to do other stuff that while not necessarily fun, still surprises me that I get to do for a job and get paid for it. Things like (I kid you not) wading through hundreds of photos to pick the prettiest ones, then processing them through Photoshop. Sometimes I make slideshow photo galleries for our website. I can assemble digital editions of the magazine that allow you to click on a specific article on the table of contents, and flip directly to that page. Sometimes I use a special computer program so that when readers scan a certain logo in the magazine with their smartphones, an additional video, podcast, or photo gallery will pop up. (That last one is actually really cool. I always triple-check anything I’ve programmed for scanning, mainly to relive the coolness again and again.)

I’ve learned how to use iMovie at a very, very basic level, and how to tag items in InDesign with XML so they can be easily uploaded to our website. I can make infographics and charts galore in Illustrator. I think I’ve finally figured out most of the Apple keyboard shortcuts for Adobe Creative Suite. Or at least the ones I feel the need to know.

And I know I will keep learning new things.

I love working in media/journalism/publishing because it’s such a dynamic industry. Yes, print is dying, but publications are not. News and current events will never cease to be important There are so many innovative ways to redesign the traditional print publication into something paperless and interactive. I can’t wait to see what will be thought up next.

(If you, too, are a professional interested in the changing mass media industry or are just a consumer who is curious about how news is made, I suggest the NY Times‘ blog Media Decoder, as well as mediabistro’s daily e-newsletter. Also, if you have Netflix, watch the documentary Page One. Throw in The September Issue and Helvetica for more fun info about the publication production process and typography/graphic design, respectively. You’re welcome.)

I love getting to work in an industry that is in some ways a little antiquated — I’ve always yearned for the bygone years of my favorite classical novels — but also exceedingly modern. As a liberal arts major, I know how invaluable it is to have so many hard skills and proficiency in numerous computer programs. I like the confident, valued feeling of knowing I have the ability to do something that not everyone else can, that I do something much more than fix misplaced commas and write headlines. (But believe me, writing headlines takes skill like you would not believe. Writing headlines is the bane of my existence.)

So, all in all, everything with my job is going really well. Is it my “dream job”? No. But my dream job is something like getting paid millions to recommend my favorite books to customers in a bookstore while drinking lattes and petting cats all day. Or, OK, working for a newsy consumer magazine, like Time or New York. Or maaaayyybeeee Martha Stewart Living or Real Simple.

But my current job is a good stepping stone, with lots of responsibility and potential for growth during my time here.

Other perks: lovely coworkers, short commute on public transportation (less than 30 minutes), K-Cup machine, casual dress code. Getting to work on a Mac at a desk with a window view (you know, of another building and pigeons) isn’t so bad either.

I will never cease to be grateful for the opportunities given to me. I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t work insanely hard to land two full-time, salaried journalism jobs in the first two years out of undergrad. But I do know at least part of the reason I’m here is luck, and for that, I am forever grateful.


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Return to the working world!

So it has finally happened. The Great Job Search of 2012 has come to an end. It took me about two months from beginning to end, with a big cross-country move thrown in, so I feel pretty happy with the time frame it took me, considering I have only been out of college for one year (and a few months). The job I ended up accepting is actually one I applied to a month ago, which just goes to show an inevitable part of the job search is waiting around for the other end to get back to you.

As for the actual position, it’s quite a bit different from my last job as a reporter for two weekly newspapers in Houston, and I’m excited about that. Don’t get me wrong, there were many things I loved about reporting–mainly the opportunity to write everyday and to meet lots of interesting people–and I learned so, so much about journalism, reporting, and myself through the near-yearlong experience. But there were a few things I was hoping would change with a new job:

  • Paris and Rory of Gilmore Girls know how super-fun it can be to be a part of all the drama of working as an editor at a college daily. It makes you do loopy things, like wear newspaper hats.

    more normal work hours – This just flat-out isn’t possible as a reporter because inevitably public meetings and events are in the evenings or on the weekends. Basically, everything you do is at the whim of someone else’s schedule. And I can tolerate that to a certain extent, but after working until 10 or 11 p.m. on a typical night at the daily student newspaper in college, only to have to go home and do homework or study, I was so over working evenings. I did not go to college and become an adult for that.

  • more time in the office – Sometimes, I really loved that reporting allowed me to not stay confined at a desk all day long. Eventually, however, I decided that I didn’t like having to run in and out and all over the city to meet with people.
  • This MIGHT have happened to me once or twice…but I always noticed before the interview was over!

    more opportunity to “multitask” – The thing about reporting is it changes everyday, which is great, but essentially what you are doing boils down to: finding a story, going to an event/meeting with people/calling people, interviewing, transcribing interviews, and writing an article. Sometimes you’d also have to take photos and edit them. I can’t explain it, but sometimes it just got really repetitive. I would stare at MS Word and just think, “I do not want to write today. This is a problem because that is basically my job: to write.” I’m sure this same thing happens with every one at some point with every job, but I really missed my more varied responsibilities as the Lifestyles desk editor at The Battalion (the student newspaper).

  • less inevitable downtime– This was killer for me, a person who likes to stay constantly busy. The thing with reporting is that you have to wait for people to call you back in order to get the information you need to write a story. And I’ve learned that all the phone calls and voice mails in the world cannot make anyone get back to you in a more timely fashion. While I could sometimes use this downtime to plan the next week’s budget, re-re-re-organize my Rolodex, and proofread other stories I’d finished, I really yearned for something else to do during those times. Something productive.

    I wonder if Louis Lane had this much trouble getting sources to call her back.

By the time I finished my job search, I’d applied to more than 80 jobs (diligence is key), had at least a dozen phone and office interviews, taken several reporting and copy editing tests, and written more personalized thank you notes to potential employers than  I care to count. And then in the last few days, I received two offers of employment! They were offering the same starting salary and amount of PTO, so I was fortunate to make my decision solely on the positions, companies, and interviewers and not about money. I won’t talk about the position I declined very much here because I don’t like to dwell on things like that, but I will say it was for a great company with friendly people in a ridiculously awesome location (right next to the NY Stock Exchange). In the end, I decided the position did not excite me as much nor did I feel like it would take my career in the direction I’d like.

So the full-time job I did accept is a desk editor position for a well-established B2B publications company that specializes in the retail industry. My particular job would be with the news group within that company that focuses on pharmaceutical retail and the healthcare industry. The position I declined was in financial/business journalism, and although I can think of no better city than New York, the financial capital of the world, to do such a thing, I just felt like I couldn’t inspire as much passion or interest in that topic as I can about healthcare. I guess it’s the consequence of having a second-year medical student for a best friend. 🙂

But that’s not the only reason I decided this job is the one for me. Firstly, it fulfills all of the things in the above list that I was hoping for. Here’s a quick list of other reasons why I’m excited about this position:

  • The managing editor and EIC who interviewed me in two separate rounds were my absolute favorite interviewers of this whole job search. They were friendly, personable, and clearly very passionate about what they do. I ended up spending an hour longer than my scheduled 30 minutes with the EIC because we got involved in such an animated discussion of the evolution of media production and consumption, as well as what the recent health care reform means to the pharmacy industry and publications the company is producing. At the end of the interview, when he basically hinted that they’d really like to hire me, he bought me a bottle of water from the office vending machine. Such a simple gesture, but it was much nicer than the Dixie cups of tap water I’d received at other offices, so it really made the company stand out in my mind.
  • While the company does produce a lot of print products (various magazines), they also work with a lot of other types of media. They update their website daily, produce many daily email newsletters, manage Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin accounts, produce podcasts and videos, and are developing digital versions of the magazine and a phone app. Because it is a smaller company and a small staff within each news group, there is the opportunity for someone in a print-orient position like the one I accepted to pitch in and try their hand at other projects. Because I am young and demonstrated enthusiasm about it, the EIC seemed interested in having me provide input about their social media engagement.
  • Oh, InDesign. How I have missed you and your many toolbars and menus.

    I’ll get to work in InDesign again. I love InDesign, you guys. Kerning, gutter space, and picas are about to return to my world. I can’t wait. Doing page design, a central element of the job description, is the perfect combination of creativity and meticulous perfectionism that suits my nature.

  • I’ll get to copy edit again! I’ll put all those AP Style trivialities that have been tattooed to my brain as a reporter to good use. Basically, I’m going to get paid to wield my Grammar Queen crown. CANNOT WAIT.
  • I’ll get to work collaboratively again, kind of. I’ll be working on a close-knit three-person team with the managing editor (my direct supervisor) and another desk editor. There will also, of course, be some liaising with the art department and the staff reporters. While I like having independent responsibilities, I really, really prefer teamwork, as long as it involves other talented, hard-working individuals. Seriously, the Batt fam remains the best “group project” I’ve ever participated in. So glad I worked as an editor there for three semesters, or I’d never know that group work can actually be successful…and fun!
  • Casual dress work environment = I can wear jeans to work. Enough said. Also, I want to buy more jeans.
  • Excellent work/life balance. Although this is unheard of in my husband’s profession (accounting), it’s important to me because I get cranky if I don’t get my daily dose of leisurely reading at home. I was told they rarely work past 7 p.m., even during final production weeks, and they haven’t clocked in on a weekend in years. This is generally unheard of for a lot media jobs, which is unfortunate. Also, morning arrival times are flexible as long as you show up by 10 a.m. and put in a solid 8-hour workday.
  • Opportunity to travel for work – The managing editor annually takes one of the desk editors to one trade show/convention each. During these three-day periods, the company cranks out a daily publication for the event attendees, so I’d have to work 12+ hours day then doing page design and copy editing, but it’s three days out of the whole year. And I might get to travel to another city. Or it might just be in NYC, which is cool too. I like it here, and honestly, leaving the city is a huge pain.
  • This is the general area of my new workplace. It’s fairly close to the MetLife Building, on Park Ave.

    Less than a 30-minute commute! Unless there is some terrible traffic accident, so help us all. The office is in a nice high-rise building on Park in midtown. I can get there by taking the cross-town bus from York (the stop is literally across the street!) down to 57th & Park, and then I have to walk like two blocks more to the office. Two blocks. The 59th & Lex metro stop is also near the office, so I can take that up to 86th if I want to walk by Fairway to pick up groceries or something like that on the way home. It’s nice not having to take the subway if you don’t have to though because it gets A LOT more crowded in the mornings and early evenings than does the bus.

    Update: Just found out from HR today that I can enroll for public transit reimbursement. Even better.

  • Good future career prospects – Both of my interviewers had been the company for at least 10 years. That’s how they got to where they are in the company today. However, since it is a small company, if I get tired of waiting for someone to quit or get promoted so that I can get promoted, I wanted to make sure there was room for horizontal movement too. People say page design is a dying art as everything goes digital, but my handy-dandy Linkedin research revealed to me that a number of people who held this position in the past (at about the same point in their careers as me, a year or two out of college) have gone on to be copy editors for nationally recognized consumer magazines at Hearst and Conde Nast. One former desk editor is the current assistant managing editor for the bridal magazine The Knot. Others have transitioned into PR and marketing. I got excited learning about all this because it has kind of been my dream since I saw 13 Going On 30 and The Devil Wears Prada to work for a magazine. Technically, that’s what I’ll be doing at my new job, but you know what I mean…a non-B2B magazine (B2B = business-to-business, if you didn’t know the term. It’s a publication specifically for professionals of a certain industry/field.)

If you saw otherwise forgettable rom-com 13 Going on 30 and didn’t want to work for a magazine, something is wrong with you.

So that’s that! We are just waiting for my criminal background to clear, which it should, and then HR is emailing me a new hire packet with some forms to fill out before my first day, this upcoming Monday.

If you’re wondering what all went into getting this job, I started by sending a cover letter, my resume, and a design clip to the managing editor through a job posting I saw on Mediabistro. I cannot recommend Mediabistro enough to everyone else in the media industry. It’s a great place to find media jobs of all kinds, from book- and magazine-publishing to news wires and PR agencies, and they send out really comprehensive, informative morning newsletters that give you the quick scoop on the latest news about the media industry (news about the news business, basically).

About two weeks later, I got a call from the managing editor, and we talked for 15 minutes or so about my InDesign, copy editing, and CMS experience. Then she decided to invite me in for an interview and copy editing test. That first interview was last Wednesday. I met with her for about 30 minutes, then spent 2 1/2 hours (yeah, I know) on the test. I had to copy edit five short articles, write headlines for them, reformat photos in Photoshop and add them to the page layout with cut lines, transfer numerical table data from Excel to a specially formatted table in InDesign, and generally do page design things using a premade template. The second part of the test was making a creative features story layout that mimicked some element of a premade front cover.

I felt like I did pretty well on the test because (thank God) I had gone to the UES Barnes & Noble a few days before and spent nearly two hours studying InDesign instructional books to refresh my memory. The only thing I struggled with was getting cut-outs I made in Photoshop go into InDesign with a transparent background AND edge-detecting text wrap without the cut-out getting a little screwed-up on the edges. Also, I had to use Mac OS for the first time since graduating from college, so that took me at least 30 minutes to readapt to. Fortunately, the EIC said I’ll get a refresher training course my first week and my work load will be a little lighter at first than it will be at full capacity–about five pages of articles copy edited and designed per day, plus copy editing either all of the day’s online stories or all of the day’s e-newsletters.

I also left the managing editor after that first interview with five different page design clips (one front page and two lifestyles blanks from The Battalion and two pages of Cornerstone, which I designed for Liberal Arts Student Council). She liked the clips, my test results, and me enough to invite me back on Friday for a 30-minute interview with the EIC. As you know, he seemed to like me enough to talk to me for quite a while, and he was impressed with my work. I think the highlight of my interview was when the EIC asked me in his rather frank Yankee way (he’s from Boston, and you can tell from his heavy accent), “So you’re young, you’re just starting out in this world, and you’ve decided to enter the dying industry of publishing. Why do you want to be a journalist so badly?”

For about half a millisecond, I was thrown off. Then I launched into this spiel about how it’s NOT dying, it’s just transforming and how that’s exciting and I’m young and I want to be a part of it (it was a lot more eloquent then that it is now). He just stared at me for a second when I finished, threw his pen down, and said, “Wow. That is the best answer I’ve ever gotten to that question. And you know what? I completely agree. It’s not a dying industry.”

So if I had any interview advice for anyone, it’s definitely to apply to jobs you know you are genuinely interested in. Your interviewers can tell. It’s why I did not perform so well at interviews for marketing-related writing positions (*cough*sell-outs*cough*) but apparently impressed two seasoned editors that I was worth hiring.

That’s enough about a job I haven’t started yet for now, haha. As you can tell, I’m so excited and happy and grateful! I feel like I’ve been given the opportunity to do what I truly wanted to do when we came to New York. I feel like once I’m settled into the working routine, I’ll have this dream life-come-true: married to my best friend of 4+ years, living with the best rescued cat ever in one of the greatest cities on earth, doing exactly what I love–working with words. I know I’ve worked truly hard to get here, but sometimes I can’t help but feel incredibly humble and grateful.

So there’s the portion of Little Women where Jo moves to NYC away from everything she knows to pursue her dream of becoming a published writer and basically since I saw this movie in elementary school, I decided “That, THAT is what I want to do.” Sadly, there aren’t nearly as many horses around this city these days.

That said, I’m determined to enjoy my last few days of freedom, the first time this summer that I don’t have to be the least concerned with wedding planning, a big move, or the job search. I kicked off this mini-summer on this rainy Wednesday with an afternoon at The Met. More on that adventure soon!


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Book review: Hi, Gonzo journalism, nice to meet you.

This is what I wish the cover of my copy of Fear and Loathing looked like, instead of a movie poster version. It irks me when they force movie posters to serve double-duty as book covers.

A couple of days ago I finished reading my first Hunter S. Thompson novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. I bought a used paperback copy for half-price while on our honeymoon in Seattle, at the BLMF Literary Saloon in Pike’s Place Market. Alas, I set this vollume aside for a couple of months, but after witnessing Sean laughing as he read through it in July, I decided it was my turn to discover what had inspired such a cult following.

Part of my interest in Thompson’s work stems from the fact that he might be the most fascinating/famous person to live in the near vicinity of my hometown of Niceville, Fla. Before he started ingesting dangerous quantities of drugs and began the revolutionary Gonzo movement in journalism (more on that later), good ol’ HST served in the U.S. Air Force at Eglin AF Base, where my dad works. By lying about his job experience, he landed a job as the sports editor of the base newspaper, The Command Courier. He also wrote an anonymous sports column for The Playground News, a local paper in Ft. Walton Beach–the neighboring hometown of one of my college roommates.

If you know anything about Thompson, it is unsurprising to learn that this guy was recommended for an early honorable discharge by his commanding officer because “although talented, [he] will not be guided by policy … sometimes his rebel and superior attitude seems to rub off on other airmen staff members.” So said Col. William S. Evans, chief of information services at Eglin. In the end, this was probably a good thing–both for the Air Force and for us lit nerds.

Here’s clean-cut Airman Thompson, typing away in the AFB office.

That’s the little known history of Hunter S. Thompson that is probably only interesting to us Okaloosa County natives. In my JOUR 102 course in college, we learned about Thompson as the father of Gonzo journalism, which was ground-breaking at the time because it defied all notions of completely objective reporting. Instead, Thompson placed himself, the reporter, into the story he was covering and wrote in the first-person. This would later inspire the New Journalism movement and such renowned narrative nonfiction writers as Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese.

I find this all to be very interesting because I read the book The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on their Craft earlier this summer (coincidentally, another Seattle purchase, from the well-known Elliot Bay Book Company). That anthology featured interviews with the likes of Jon Krakauer, who wrote the NY Times’ bestseller Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. In essence, the journalistic grandbabies of Mr. Thompson. So I saw this as my opportunity to see where all this new-fangled journalism began.

Here’s the man himself, in more of his natural element. Almost every photo I found of him post-military service involved a cigarette in his mouth. No, really.

Fear and Loathing is notably the first time Thompson uses the label “Gonzo” in his own writing to refer to his journalistic style: “But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.” The term “gonzo” was coined by Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso in 1970 when describing Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Cardoso claimed “gonzo” was Boston Irish slang to describe the last man standing after an all-night drinking marathon. Who knows how true this story is, but it makes sense, right? Just a fun little etymology lesson for you. Thompson personally associated his style of writing with one of my favorite authors, William Faulkner, who once claimed that “fiction is often the best fact.”

Here is Thompson (left) and Acosta, the real-life inspirations for alter egos “Raoul Duke” and “Dr. Gonzo,” Duke’s attorney.

Fear and Loathing actually began as a 250-word photo caption assignment for Sports Illustrated that grew into a two-part series in Rolling Stone and the contemporary classic the book is today. What’s it about, you ask? Plot-wise, it’s hard to say, because Thompson wasn’t much of one for plot. Or at least plot as the primary motivation/drive for the writing. But in short, it’s a thinly disguised, somewhat autobiographical tale about reporter Raoul Duke (Thompson) and a 250-pound Samoan, repeatedly referred to as “my attorney” (Oscar Zeta Acosta), who head to Vegas to cover the Mint 400 desert race, and later, to crash the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs–with, as it turns out, a suitcase stuffed with psychedelics.

As Duke explains, “Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas … with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether.” More importantly to Duke and his attorney, they are in pursuit of “the American Dream,” that elusive concept that they naturally never quite find. Sorry to spoil that for you. But if you’ve read The Great Gatsby in high school like the rest of America, you already knew that such a dream isn’t real.

A lot of Thompson’s stream-of-conscious style of writing can be difficult for readers to make sense of, and with good reason, as he attempts to write based off recordings he made while in a hallucinogenic-induced haze:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

I think to appreciate this book you have to reflect on Thompson’s underlying commentary about the culture of the U.S. in the early ’70s. Fear and Loathing is plot-less, not pointless, OK? At the time this book takes place, you’ve got the Vietnam War going on, Nixon as president, and the flower child/counter-culture movements of the ’60s are already on the decline. When the reality-skewing drugs of the past decade did not prove to be enough to right the world, they went out of style (“It is worth noting, historically, that downers came in with Nixon…”). The drug culture began to mirror the hopelessness of society. “No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. . . a generation of permanent cripples who never understood the essential fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody. . . is tending the Light at the end of the tunnel.” As the drug culture changed, those on the fringes of society were left dwindling and confused.

The Las Vegas hotel Circus-Circus has a prominent role in the book, but fun fact: the hotel would not allow filming on-site for the film adaptation. Unsurprising.

Las Vegas is the perfect setting for a place to pursue the American Dream, in my opinion. You’ve got excess to the extent of tackiness and hope and despair all juxtaposed together in one city. One of my favorite quotes from the book is when Duke decides that Vegas “is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”

As Thompson threw any cohesive idea of a plot out the window, the focus is on the details. We are given vivid images of the world seen through a drug-powered delirium. Duke sees strangers as reptilian monsters, crawling in pools of blood. There’s a humorous scene when Duke tries to convince a Georgia cop to be worried about a smackhead migration to the Deep South because such druggies are attracted to warm weather. There are truly no slow points in the book, as Thompson’s rolling language carries us further and further from reality and deeper into his whacked-out mind.

There are also some fantastically phantasmagorical illustrations from Ralph Steadman, which I think really add to the story in terms of revealing the horrific side-effects of drugs that are intended to make life seem a little more enjoyable.

And sometimes the book is just laugh-out-loud funny.

Here’s a just charming illustration by Steadman for Fear and Loathing. In the book, I’m pretty sure the attorney was vomiting into this boots, not the toilet.

There is no denying this book is worth reading because of the revolutionary nature of the writing. It’s the journalistic equivalent of a surrealist painting. Although not as serious as Thompson’s other works, it is considered by many of his devoted followers to be his magnum opus. I’m not in a position to know if I agree, but I can see why they would say so. As the NY Times’ book reviewer declared in 1972, when Fear and Loathing was first published, it is “the best book yet written on the decade of dope gone by,” but it is also much more than that. It’s a memorable, visceral literary experience.

I give it 3 out of 5 stars because it just wasn’t my favorite type of book and after 200 pages, witnessing two guys on drugs got a little predictable, but I’m definitely glad I read it so I know what all the well-justified hype is about. I would like to see the 1998 film adaptation, which stars Johnny Depp as Duke/Thompson (Depp also starred in the film adaptation of Thompson’s The Rum Diary…I sense a pattern here). But I doubt it could compare to the rollicking adventure of the book version.

I’ll conclude with one of my favorite quotes from Fear and Loathing (I love collecting quotes). This is Thompson’s reflections on being in San Francisco in the ’60s:

Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.

Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke in the 1998 film adaptation of Fear and Loathing.


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