Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Five notable books on journalism

Toby Young is a British journalist and author of the memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.

One of his five top books on journalism, as told to Alec Ash at The Browser:
Child of the Century
by Ben Hecht

I discovered Ben Hecht through His Girl Friday, one of the few great Hollywood films of the 1930s and 40s that he didn’t write. It was based on The Front Page, a play that Hecht co-authored with Charles MacArthur when they were both Chicago newspapermen. The Front Page is a vicious satire of drink-sodden hacks and the papers they worked for, but it’s also a tribute to them. Walter Burns, the central character, keeps company with crooks and ne’er-do-wells, and employs every black art in the book to get stories, but he also brings down a cabal of corrupt politicians. In that respect, he’s a model of what all good tabloid editors should aspire to be – and indeed many are.

Needless to say, Hecht and MacArthur’s colleagues, many of whom were the models for the characters in the play, absolutely loved it. Jed Harris, the play’s original producer, wrote an account of the reception the play got on its opening night:

“It was one of the marvels of The Front Page that although all the characters were actual people, nobody ever thought of suing us for invasion of privacy. Indeed, they all turned up for the opening night in Chicago and simply wallowed in delight. When the curtain fell at the end of the first act, the roar that rose from the audience sounded like the bellowing of a herd of wild animals panicked by a fire in a zoo. Above this din one great monster of a voice could be heard yelling: ‘MAKE IT MORE PERSONAL.’”

A Child of the Century is Hecht’s autobiography and it spans his career, not just as a journalist, playwright and screenwriter but as a literary novelist as well. In an essay written in the 1960s, the film critic Pauline Kael said that Hecht wrote almost half the entertaining movies ever produced in Hollywood and she’s not far off. His credits include Gunga Din, The Prisoner of Zenda, Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, Spellbound, Strangers on a Train and Cleopatra. I love Ben Hecht and for many years aspired to have a career like his. One of the reasons I was so disappointed by New York journalism when I lived there in the mid-to-late nineties is because I didn’t meet anyone like him.
Read about another book Young tagged at The Browser.

Also see Tom Rachman's top ten journalist's tales, Judith Paterson's list of the ten best books of social concern by journalists, Roger Mudd's five best books about journalism, and Scott Simon's five best journalism books.

--Marshal Zeringue