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Ira Glass's new anthology, The New Kings of Nonfiction, is based on an interesting premise--"We're living in an age of great nonfiction writing, in the same way that the 1920s and '30s were a golden age of American popular song. Giants walk among us. Cole Porters and George Gershwins and Duke Ellingtons of nonfiction storytelling. They're trying new things and doing pirouettes with the form. But nobody talks about it that way."
And Glass has found some doozies. By my count, there are four masterpieces, if you have time to kill in a bookstore:
* Jack Hitt's "Toxic Dreams," about the largest class action suit in U.S. history, a modern Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.
* Susan Orlean's justly famous "The American Man, Age Ten."
* Mark Bowden's comprehensive profile of Saddam Hussein, "Tales of the Tyrant."
The rest are good, too, except for Coco Henson Scales's forgettable essay about working at a hip New York barstaurant (celebrities--they're odd to be around, some of them are dicks) and Chuck Klosterman's precious profile of Val Kilmer (if you're familiar with their work, you can probably guess what it's like). I'm not alone in thinking so.
Overall, it's a fine anthology, not a bad compromise as these things go. Literary Journalism, edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer, is better front-to-back but more conservative; John D'Agata's The New American Essay is riskier but less reliable. Unfortunately, Glass makes no attempt to engage with new media; I was heartened to hear that the new Da Capo music anthology has selections from Gabe Said "We're Into Movements,"2 including YEAH I'M THREATENING YA! I KEEP HEDGE FUNDS! (it came out too soon for GO NOW, BROTHER), as well as a David Byrne blog post on Sunn0))). That's progress.
If there's a problem with Glass's anthology, it's in the framing. First, almost all the authors are actually very well established--the oldest piece in the book is "Shapinsky's Karma" by Chicago Humanities Festival director Lawrence Weschler, published in 1985; most of them are only new if you stretch the timeline back to the last Golden Age of Nonfiction.
Which leads me to beef #2: If Weschler marks the beginning of Glass's golden age, that means it started only a decade after the previous one, defined by Tom Wolfe's The New Journalism. Before that you've got the New Yorker's golden age, which includes such leading lights as A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and Lillian Ross. Not to mention all the great authors who don't fit into the aforementioned movements: John McPhee, McCandlish Phillips, J. Anthony Lukas, David Halberstam, and others. That's three golden ages that span most of modern journalism, Glass's claim that we're living in some kind of rarefied era is at best exaggerated and at worst a little misleading.
Not that I hold it against him. He's an enthusiast, not a scholar or a critic, and he's put together a fine collection that carries the torch for a couple of my favorite pieces of writing. It will treat you well; just keep it in context.
1. Speaking of Lee Sandlin, he recently redesigned his Web site, which now includes a "director's cut" of his midwestern history "The Distancers," added a wonderfully time-killing Enthusiams section, as well as Coming Attractions. Do check it out.
2. Gabe Said "We're Into Movements" is forward-thinking, funny, and sometimes extremely moving, but for my money Chris Ryan's masterwork is his inscrutable, brilliant (and, it seems, no longer updated) basketball blog Chauncey Billups (vid).