Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941). This is an attempt to document the "cruel radiance of what is," as Agee put it, that all others should be measured against. And all others fail -- as did Agee, and, to a lesser extent, photographer Evans. And still I re-read this great, failed experiment over and over through the years, with caution and awe.
Blues for Cannibals: The Notes from Underground, by Charles Bowden (2002). I used to assign this to my students, but it infuriated 2/3 of every semester’s class. It’s hard going, dense, circular, occasionally overwrought, and absolutely brilliant. Makes the phrase “dark lyricism” meaningful. Sort of like James Agee’s best work: study it, but beware of trying it at home.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion (1968). When I first read this, at age 18, I wanted to wear giant Joan Didion sunglasses and have migraines. Then I figured out that all I wanted from Didion were her sentences. Now that I’m older and I have my own, imperfect sentences, what I admire is Didion’s power of perception, the nearly flawless double vision that allowed her to see a society in crisis and at the same time to see herself, watching it crumble.
The Robber Barons, by Matthew Josephson (1934). An early 20th century example of muckraking as scripture. Like many of his contemporaries, Josephson wanted to write about the bastards who’d ripped off a nation; but unlike less imaginative writers, he fell in love with his subjects, and the result is this Dante-eque tour of the history of American greed by a writer who knows that Hell is more interesting than Heaven.
The Dybbuk, or Between Two World, by S. Ansky (1914). This Yiddish play, which I first read in an English version by the great translator Joachim Neugroschel and later saw in an adaptation by one of my favorite playwrights, Tony Kushner, is not, technically, nonfiction. But Ansky approached it as if it was, scouring the folklore of Eastern European Jews for decades to create this uncanny distillation of a world of belief. The story, of a possession, is simple and yet irreducibly complex; I find myself thinking about it often when writing about religion. Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is equally essential to me.
The Maine Woods, by Henry David Thoreau (1864). I’m no great fan of Thoreau’s self-enamored prose, but this book’s account of his ascent up Mt. Ktaadn and his discovery, close to its peak, that the world is vastly more complex and beautifully dangerous than his imagination could conceive—“Contact! Contact!” he nearly screams in terror—is, to me, the beginning of American literary journalism.
The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm (1990). Maybe this book should have marked the end of American literary journalism. Its brief story—of a dispute between the murderer of its title and the journalist who tried to tell his story—is a vehicle for Malcolm’s condemnation of the genre she practices as something akin to ritual sacrifice. I read it, assign it, and think about it every time I start a new story.
Lipstick Traces, by Greil Marcus (1990). I’ve never read this book straight through, and I don’t care about its ostensible subject, the Sex Pistols, but I always keep it close at hand. It’s a masterwork of pattern and digression, an almost too-hip monstrosity of hybrid prose that I nonetheless find bracingly hopeful: a commonplace book of strange dignity, “the ability,” writes my favorite theological thinker, “to contradict what is.”