Required Reading: Books for “Nonfiction Techniques” Class

As I mentioned yesterday, I begin grad school tomorrow night and I couldn’t be more excited. I will begin with only one class, “Nonfiction Techniques.” Here’s what they have us reading:

The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft
By Robert Boynton
(Vintage, Paperback, 9781400033560, 496 pages)

I’ve already begun this book, and I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit. The author conducted interviews with nineteen exemplary nonfiction writers on their craft, including Gay Talese, Ted Conover, Eric Schlosser, Jon Krakauer, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, and Lawrence Wright, among others.

It’s not as easy to read as, say, one of the books that its subjects has written, because of its scholarly nature, but already I’ve learned a lot about writing narrative nonfiction. As one reviewer puts it, “While his subjects tell us how they do it, Boynton shows us how it’s done.”

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
By Anne Lamott
(Anchor, Paperback, 9780385480017, 272 pages)

I loved Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, but I’ve been less enamored of her more religious writings. However, I’ve heard good things about Bird by Bird, and it seems like a nice, quick read.

The title comes from her father’s advice to her brother, who was panicking about a major school paper about birds due the next day. As Lamott tells it, her brother

was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
By Mark Kramer and Wendy Call (editors)
(Plume, Paperback, 9780452287556, 352 pages)

The Nieman Foundation is doing great things, and if I can’t time-travel to attend its once-annual Conference on Narrative Journalism, this book seems like the next best thing. Telling True Stories presents the best advice from the country’s most prominent journalists and nonfiction authors–“covering everything from finding a good topic, to structuring narrative stories, to writing and selling your first book.”

It features more than fifty well-known writers, including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Malcolm Gladwell, and more. According to the back cover, “Telling True Stories will show anyone fascinated by the art of writing nonfiction how to bring people, scenes, and ideas to life on the page.” Sounds good to me.

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