This is my unashamedly left-wing/green list of must reads for journalists. There are, I'm sure you'll notice, a few glaring absences, such as My Trade, Flat Earth News, etc. I've made this list deliberately personal, I wanted to avoid the books that you'll all have been recommended since September already. Anyway, let me know what you think, and if you have any that you'd add to a list of your own!
1. Unspeak, Steven Poole
This is a book written against hidden meaning, against the abuse of language for entirely selfish reasons. Politicians, obviously, feature heavily, corporations likewise. But it is for his excoriating examination of military and legal ‘Unspeak’ that I am recommending this. The Bush administration does not come off well. As Poole makes so horribly clear, ‘torture’ was not US policy in the War on Terror because they simply redefined torture. An indispensable read for budding word-smiths.
2. Travels with Herodotus, Ryszard Kapuscinski
I almost can’t write about this book, for fear of not doing it justice. By far my favourite on this list, it almost defies description. Kapuscinski was named journalist of the century in Poland, his home country, and you can tell why. This book, part memoir, part travel book, is a beautifully told story of his life as a reporter (in Africa and southern Asia mostly), with his copy of The Histories by Herodotus always at his side. He retells the stories of Herodotus whilst telling his own story, and the seemingly effortless blend between the two is absolutely arresting. Since reading this book, passages of prose by other writers have started to seem stilted and clunky in comparison with him. So my only hesitation in recommending this would be that it sets such a high standard that you might become dissatisfied with reading anything else.
3. The Search for Al Qaeda, Brude Riedel
This graciously concise book explains not only the who, what, when, where and why of Al Qaeda, but the how to defeat them. A retired senior intelligence analyst for the US, Riedel knows the terrain inside-out. His greatest achievement here is in explaining the influence of the Israel/Palestinian conflict and the dispute over Kashmir on the attempt to eliminate Al Qaeda. Take away the justification for their anti-West fervour (perceived backing of Israel etc.), he argues, and you will pull the rug from under Al Qaeda’s attempts to find sympathy in the Arab world. In the end, it is peace, not more war, that will bring about Al Qaeda’s defeat.
4. Real England, Paul Kingsnorth
This book is a reporter’s dream. Kingsnorth travels all over the country speaking to people about how their lives are changing, with a view to showing how, beneath the superficial benefits of globalisation, England is having its cultural and historical institutions erased by it. He speaks to farmers, market-workers, and pub-owners (to name but a few) and tells their stories under the relentless yoke of the modern world. A wonderful example of using individual stories to paint a bigger picture, and a true paean to England.
5. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Philip Gourevitch
A journalist’s dream, too, this one, though of an absolutely harrowing kind. Gourevitch travelled Rwanda for years after the genocide, and tells the stories of people he meets. Remarkably, he manages to keep his own feelings out of the way, though it must have been an absolutely tormenting journey to undertake. How do you reconcile a country split in two? What can justice mean when murderers walk the streets, still neighbours with survivors whose families they killed? This sometimes forgotten conflict from our recent history is still taking lives today, in the bordering country of the Congo. Faced with a book like this, you realise what journalism is for.
6. The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen
This book’s subtitle is ‘How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy’. Strong words indeed, and they demonstrate Keen’s unfortunate tendency to stray further into bold polemic than his evidence allows. But the evidence he cites is why I’ve included this book. The high-flying student who robs a bank after becoming addicted to internet gambling is one example, as is another who lost $250,000 in online poker. Wikipedia, needless to say, is vigorously attacked, as are illegal down-load sites. The music industry has been decimated by the internet, newspapers are on the slide, and films are next, Keen says. This ‘democratization’ of the media is destroying what makes our culture so great, he says: truth, decency and creativity. Protecting those values is our duty to the future.
7. The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock
This is the last book the infamous scientist will write, Lovelock tells us: ‘A Final Warning’. There’s no getting around it, global warming is going to make large parts of the earth (or Gaia, as he calls it) into uninhabitable wasteland and swathes of the oceans into ‘deserts’ devoid of life, Lovelock says. Probably the most terrifying premise for a book imaginable, you might think, but he writes about it with such verve that you can’t help but want to read on. The likelihood of any mediating technologies or geological events (such as a spate of volcanic eruptions) stopping the earth moving to a hotter state is extremely low, Lovelock says, and we should focus more on adapting to this (almost) inevitable change instead of wasting time and money on ‘renewable’ energy. Nuclear energy is absolutely essential to meet our energy needs, he says, and has caused zero deaths in the history of its usage in the UK: “Compare this with the tens of thousands who died in the coal and oil industries.” Gaia will survive, Lovelock says, but just how many humans do is down to us.
8. The Age of Consent, George Monbiot
Here the guru of green turns his hand to international politics, and makes a very persuasive case. Coloured by a similar anti-globalisation sentiment to Real England, Monbiot asserts that our current epoch is the Age of Coercion, ie the most important decisions are made on a supra-national level at which no democratic accountability, no consent, exists. He sets forth his proposals for a world in which justice and democracy are global (including a world government). I hesitate to recommend such a radical book, but he goes by the principle that, accepting that the prevailing order must be changed, only proposing an alternative to his propositions is a fair criticism, defying the reader to make any better suggestion for a fairer world. I certainly haven’t got one.
9. The Black Swan, Nicholas Nassim Taleb
Taleb had a bit of a hey-day last year during the credit crunch, as people groped around for a view that could explain the catastrophic cock-up of global finance. In The Black Swan, he explains his unique perspective on the world. Predictions cannot be made in complex systems, he tells us, and never trust a person in a tie. That second one may sound a bit spurious, but it is his way of telling us that ‘experts’ can tell you no more about the future than your average taxi-driver. Sounds like he’s going out on a limb, there, but, as a ‘skeptical empiricist’, he doesn’t make wild assertions. Taxi-drivers’ forecasts are as accurate as economists’, he proves it. In light of this, our entire culture’s focus around the future is ridiculous, he argues, we need to learn to live within what we can know.
10. War Reporting For Cowards, Chris Ayres
Given that this book is a reporter’s experience of the Iraq war, you might not expect it to be funny. Chris Ayres, though, is not just any reporter. More Kate Winslet than Kate Adie, he gets embedded with the US army for The Times almost completely accidently, having no prior experience of reporting conflict. I was laughing from the first page, and there’s no let up. Managing to spin an entire book out of a simple premise, he seems to say: “I am excruciatingly embarrassed by my behaviour. I was a wimp and a coward throughout this whole debacle. Here’s what happened...” Hilarious, honest and completely unlike any other reportage you’ll read.