Recommend me some old classic "New Yorker style" nonfiction that is still relevant and readable now.
August 16, 2010 3:10 PM   Subscribe

Recommend me some classic "New Yorker style" nonfiction that's aged well and stayed readable. Special snowbookflakeworm within.

I'm looking for well-written stories about the odds and ends of history and everyday life. I like essays that are character-driven — think John McPhee writing about orange growers or the guys who still brand cattle by hand, rather than John McPhee writing about rocks. I don't necessarily mind philosophizing — but any essay you can describe by summing up its argument or the author's politics ("Let me tell you a story that illustrates why Roe v. Wade was good!") is not gonna be the sort of thing I have in mind. I tend not to go for satire either — I never could get into Mark Twain's essays, for instance.

I adore McPhee and E.B. White. I loved "Soul of a New Machine." I have to work really hard to get past Tom Wolfe's style, but I usually enjoy his subject matter. I like David Foster Wallace okay when he's telling a story and not contemplating his navel. Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs leave me cold, and James Frey and Chuck Closterman are the earthly embodiment of everything I hate.

What I'm really looking for, though, is recommendations for older stuff — authors I couldn't find out about now just by opening an issue of the New Yorker or the Believer or whatever. Bonus points, too, for women and non-US-ian authors who write this sort of stuff.
posted by nebulawindphone to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
If you haven't already read it I highly recomment Joseph Mitchell's stuff — Up in the Old Hotel collects a lot of his pieces (most originally written for the New Yorker) and it looks like a couple of his other books are recently back in print as well.
posted by enn at 3:14 PM on August 16, 2010

posted by enn at 3:16 PM on August 16, 2010

Kevin Kelly's The Best Magazine Articles Ever has a huge list ordered by decade.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 3:20 PM on August 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Have you tried Borges? He's probably my personal favorite short fiction writer (outside of DFW, who I love most when he's contemplating his navel).
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:21 PM on August 16, 2010

In a similar vein as Up in the Old Hotel, how about, by Emily Hahn (another Nyer writer of yore)?
posted by emhutchinson at 3:26 PM on August 16, 2010

posted by emhutchinson at 3:27 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

check out
posted by Bwithh at 3:35 PM on August 16, 2010

Have you tried Borges? He's probably my personal favorite short fiction writer (outside of DFW, who I love most when he's contemplating his navel).

Thanks, but I asked about nonfiction. (I do like Borges's stories, though.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:35 PM on August 16, 2010

There's also St. Clair McKelway's Reporting at Wit's End. I'm reading from his essay "Mr. Eight Eighty" tonight at a storyreading group I go to.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:36 PM on August 16, 2010

I've recently come to love Sue Hubbell, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker. I especially like her Great American Pie Expedition, which is collected in Far-Flung Hubbell, and A Book of Bees. The latter is superficially a treatise on beekeeping, but really is a profound discourse on observing and synchronizing oneself with nature. Her writing is McPhee-esque (I am speaking as a person who has read 26 of McPhee's 28 books).
posted by neuron at 3:41 PM on August 16, 2010

The best thing to do is go down to your library and check out old issues of Granta.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:50 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you read your way through the complete Janet Malcolm yet? And not just the famous stuff? Because actually the latest, the slight "Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice" is actually fantastic and underrated. And then "The Crime of Sheila McGough" is a doozy. (You may either love or hate her most recent in the New Yorker—I loooooooooved it—but at longer form the work becomes even more character-driven.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 3:50 PM on August 16, 2010

Oh and also (disclosure: by a pal) but I am starting this book by Ann Finkbeiner right now, about the people who created the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It comes out tomorrow, but judging from her work and from chapter one, it's already terrific.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 3:53 PM on August 16, 2010

You're going to love Gay Talese. My favourite thing he ever wrote is the book New York: A Serendipiter's Journey, a great portrait of some of the lesser-known sides of New York in the 60s, filled with fascinating characters. Fame and Obscurity collects some of his work and is a great introduction to his writing. If you've never read Talese, you're in for a treat. Enjoy!
posted by Put the kettle on at 3:54 PM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Gay Talese
Truman Capote
Tracy Kidder

Also, the New Yorker anthology series has some amazing material, they're pretty hefty books. The food one and the profiles one in particular are treasure.
posted by gyusan at 3:57 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks, but I asked about nonfiction. (I do like Borges's stories, though.)

Check out his non-fiction too!
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:15 PM on August 16, 2010

George Saunders is a regular New Yorker contributor and an excellent essayist. I love DFW, and Saunders reminds me of DFW minus the relentless second-guessing. Go with Braindead Megaphone.
posted by zoomorphic at 4:47 PM on August 16, 2010

A great, great book that is exactly what you're looking for: Alec Wilkinson's Moonshine: A Life in Pursuit of White Liquor. Wilkinson is a longtime contributor to the New Yorker and a master of nonfiction narrative, and this is by far my favorite book of his. In Moonshine he accompanies Garland Bunting, a revenue agent in the South, on his undercover raids of illegal moonshining operations. The book is hilarious and kind of poignant at the same time. I personally guarantee that you will love it.
posted by cirripede at 4:49 PM on August 16, 2010

As mentioned previously Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel is exactly what you want. It is tremendous.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:53 PM on August 16, 2010

Mean, mean Susan Orlean?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:12 PM on August 16, 2010

I've always loved The Glory and the Dream. It's a personal narative of U.S. history from the Depression through Watergate. It's riveting.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 5:17 PM on August 16, 2010

Also, the New Yorker anthology series has some amazing material, they're pretty hefty books. The food one and the profiles one in particular are treasure.

Those do look pretty fantastic.

Some non-fiction writers I have read over the past ten years include:

Roger Angell (stepson of EB White)
Philip Gourevitch
Ted Conover
Elizabeth Kolbert
Redmond O'Hanlon

These folks are mostly journalists or science writers, although Roger Angell writes some excellent stuf about baseball
posted by KokuRyu at 5:21 PM on August 16, 2010

The Stories of John Cheever is from a bygone era, but the stories are classic New Yorker style and they resonate. (Especially The Enormous Radio, one of the best short stories of all time.) I am a short story lover, and think of these as creme de la creme.
posted by bearwife at 5:44 PM on August 16, 2010

So sorry, didn't read carefully and see you are hunting nonfiction. My bad. Save my recommendation only if you want the flavor of post WWII New York, in fiction.
posted by bearwife at 5:46 PM on August 16, 2010

Angela's Ashes which manages to be both non-fiction and the male complement to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
posted by jander03 at 5:54 PM on August 16, 2010

Walker in the City

I love this book passionately.

In A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin recalls his childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn with such tactile specificity that readers, too, will smell "that good and deep odor of lox, of salami, of herrings and half-sour pickles" that emanated from the neighborhood pushcarts. His story is set in the working-class Jewish community of New York City in the decade preceding the Great Depression, but this classic memoir of the first-generation American experience resonates universally. Kazin depicts his younger self as a smart, unhappy kid who dreamed of escape from a confining local landscape. He found in books the road map to a freer territory. In Kazin's case, this was "the city" ("everything just out of Brownsville") whose glamorous institutions--the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden--spoke of an American past and an intellectual community that this son of eastern European immigrants was determined to make his own. (And he did, with his pioneering 1942 critical work, On Native Grounds, published when he was just 27.) Yet Kazin came to understand that the roots he had been so anxious to tear up were the source of his deepest identity. His loving portrait of his past acknowledges the crucial importance of belonging, even as it affirms the compelling necessity of escape. What could be more American? ( Review - Wendy Smith )

posted by fifilaru at 5:58 PM on August 16, 2010

I'll second (or whatever) Talese, who, really, is probably the best of all time when it comes to this sort of writing. Try, in particular, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold".

In a similar vein, A.J. Liebling, formerly of the New Yorker, is also great. My favorite is the "The Earl of Louisiana."

Not quite as classic, but I have really loved most everything David Grann, a current New Yorker writer, has ever written. My favorite, from 2003, is "City of Water," though he continues to write and most everything is really worth checking out.
posted by ecab at 6:26 PM on August 16, 2010

More contemporary, but Gastronomica
posted by ifjuly at 7:36 PM on August 16, 2010

And I doubt you wouldn't know already, but Joan Didion's The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem
posted by ifjuly at 7:37 PM on August 16, 2010

Ohoh, and AJ Liebling
posted by ifjuly at 7:38 PM on August 16, 2010

I came in to recommend Joseph Mitchell, particularly Up in the Old Hotel, but I see that that ground has been covered, so I will simply second it.

I also came in to recommend Sue Hubbell, but yeah so I will just second that as well and go now. Happy reading!
posted by trip and a half at 11:20 PM on August 16, 2010

I've just read The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, which is a collection of David Grann's journalism, where several (most I think) of the pieces were originally printed in the New Yorker.

Short review: very entertaining, especially if you accept it's a collection of magazine articles rather than possessing the overarching theme the publisher pretends.
posted by Hartster at 4:30 AM on August 17, 2010

I think Joseph Mitchell is great.

I also quite like Edward Hoagland's earlier essays. He reminds me a lot of McPhee, and he was a perennial Best American Essays choice.

Speaking of which, you might check out that series. Not everything is great, but you may well get turned on to some new authors.
posted by OmieWise at 8:04 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

For Gay Talese, there is The Gay Talese Reader.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:01 AM on August 17, 2010

Hoagland, yes. Tom Miller's "The Panama Hat Trail." Any of Tracy Kidder. Simon Winchester. Tony Horwitz. Barbara Kingsolver's non-fiction. Elizabeth David. Jonathan Raban. Anthony Bailey. Erik Larson. Jon Krakauer. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison. John Berendt.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:15 AM on August 17, 2010

Titles are escaping me right now, but anything about historical crime and corruption in NYC
such as Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed. I have read several historical crime anthologies about NYC and found them fascinating, hilarious and memorable.
posted by No Shmoobles at 10:35 AM on August 17, 2010

Bill Buford: Heat (somewhat about Mario Batali, but also about the craft of cooking and chefs), and Among the Thugs (about English football hooligans).

Since you loved Soul of a New Machine, have you tried Kidder's House? I liked it better!

How about travel writing? I have enjoyed most of Paul Theroux's travel books, and Chatwin's In Patagonia, for example.
posted by alb at 11:01 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nice thread! I came in to say (although looks like I'm seconding) George Saunders.
posted by aka burlap at 1:02 PM on August 17, 2010

« Older Buenos Aires vacation with a 20-month-old?   |   Advanced After Effects classes in NYC? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.