‘Good Prose’

01.22.13

Book Bag: Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd on The Art of Nonfiction

Pulitzer winner Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor Richard Todd have been friends for 40 years, and they have loved talking about one topic: nonfiction. In Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, they record that obsession. Here are six of their favorite narratives, essays, and memoirs.

Colorful stylists, whatever their other virtues, make dangerous models. Aspiring writers might look instead to the pure. Here are six works of nonfiction to cleanse the palate of the reader dining on too-rich prose.

Reporting
By Lillian Ross

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‘Reporting’ by Lillian Ross. Dodd Mead. ()

This is the collection in which Ross’s classic profile of Hemingway appears—as fresh as it was in 1950 and more valuable, especially for its preservation of the literary manners of a disappeared era. It offers reassuring evidence that good journalism doesn’t date.

The Duke of Deception
By Geoffrey Wolff

The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff
‘The Duke of Deception’ by Geoffrey Wolff. 275 pp. Vintage. $15. ()

In his portrait of a con-man father, Wolff writes a memoir of perfect integrity. Wolff is honest about the limitations of memory, eschews invented scenes and dialogue, and produces a completely trustworthy and very entertaining book.

Better
By Atul Gawande

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‘Better’ by Atul Gawande. 288 pp. Picador. $15. ()

It may be disconcerting that a gifted writer spends much of his working day performing endocrine surgery. But here is the remarkable thing: Gawande, without disowning his medical knowledge, manages in his lucid prose to assume the essential role of the essayist: not expert but eternal student.

Encounters With the Archdruid
By John McPhee

Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
‘Encounters with the Archdruid’ by John McPhee. 245 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16. ()

With this extended profile of the late environmentalist David Brower, McPhee creates story out of what might seem mere conversation, and gives us not only a deep and nuanced portrait but an illumination of issues that, with different players, persist 40 years later.

A Civil Action
By Jonathan Harr

A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr
‘A Civil Action’ by Jonathan Harr. 502 pp. Vintage. $17. ()

As he describes a lawyer in whom virtue becomes obsession, Harr demonstrates how a writer, with intensely intimate and patient reporting, can earn the right to inhabit the mind of his subject.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
By Anne Fadiman

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
‘The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down’ by Anne Fadiman. 368 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux $15. ()

The beautifully observed story of a Hmong immigrant family in its encounter with Western doctors, as each community struggles to help an epileptic child. A reflective compassion, more powerful for its restraint, informs this account of tragic cultural misperceptions.