Top Ten Titles From the Golden Age of Journalism

A funny thing happened as I’ve been reading and preparing to write about Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) for my next Books That Mattered postI was suddenly flooded with memories of the great works of journalism that were emerging–in a seeming avalanche–in the Sixties and Seventies when many of us Baby Boomers were hitting our formative years.

We were living in the golden age of print journalism. We just didn’t know it.

Esquire_Magazine_Sinatra_Has_a_Cold

I vividly remember taking a college writing course and reading Gay Talese’s classic essay, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (Esquire, 1966). It was a revelation that a piece of magazine writing–and in a lowly genre like the celebrity profile, no less–could have such spark, tension, style, life. It gave us a glimpse into a major celebrity in a way that no by-the-numbers profile had ever done before. (And darn few have since.)

And that was just an early shining example of something marvelous that was beginning to sprout and take root in the mid-Sixties. For the next fifteen years or so–right up to the end of the Seventies–writers of all stripes were destined to push the boundaries of news writing and journalism.

fear & loathing

“Literature is news that stays news.” That’s been the rule-of-thumb for distinguishing between the ultimately disposable (however commendable and well-written) news of the day versus the lofty peaks of (big L) Literature.

But something odd and unique happened to journalism in this time period: it aspired to be more than something ephemeral, disposable, with a strict sell-by date. Writers like Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and other chroniclers of their times were knocking on the doors of Literature. Some (like Thompson and his “Gonzo Journalism”) seemed intent on smashing the damn doors to pieces.

tom wolfe

And so the golden age of journalism came about. Of course, not all the practioners of the “New Journalism” (Tom Wolfe coined the term) were equally conscientious or skillful. But the top writers did so with a verve and passion and intensity that we’ve rarely seen since.

Here, then, are the top books of journalism from that golden age. And these are not just books for those interested in Baby Boomer nostalgia: these are books that are well worth reading for anyone–no matter what age–who loves the written word, who loves a well-crafted scene, who loves books that manage to capture the tenor of their times. These books are alive, man.

THE TOP TEN “NEW JOURNALISM” BOOKS

Truman Capote

  • In Cold Blood (1965)

Norman Mailer

  • The Armies of the Night (1968)
  • Of a Fire on the Moon (1970)

Tom Wolfe

  • The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
  • The Right Stuff (1979)

Hunter S. Thompson

  • The Hells Angels (1967)
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972)

Joan Didion

  • Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968)
  • The White Album (1979)

slouching

I’ll be writing more specifically about these books in upcoming posts, but for now would like to say a big Thank You to these splendid writers for their often brave, sometimes quirky, always thrilling explorations into the outer limits of print journalism.

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14 Comments

Filed under baby boomers, books, literature

14 responses to “Top Ten Titles From the Golden Age of Journalism

  1. Didion’s book I just got as a Christmas gift. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on her work!

    • John Willard

      If Tom Wolfe gets three entries, than I think Norman Mailer can get “The Executioner’s Song” added to his list. And I’m inclined to give George Plimpton an honorable mention for “Paper Lion” and the whole school of participatory journaism he helped to start.

      • Well . . . food for thought. Although, technically,The Executioner’s Song is categorized as a “novel.” At least, that’s what its Library of Congress designation says. (I was intending to include it in my top ten, instead of Of a Fire on the Moon, but double-checked and discovered that it is not technically a non-fiction work.) . . . This is where we get into pretty murky waters: why is In Cold Blood considered non-fiction but not Executioner’s Song? Who knows. Let’s go grab a couple of beers and discuss.

        I will, however, cede to your George Plimpton request. Plimpton was certainly one of the founding members of the whole participatory trend (would there have been a Hunter Thompson without a George Plimpton before him, paving the way?) Hard to say, but possibly not.

        Thanks for your comments. You made me think a bit, which although I resist doing, is probably good for me.

    • Diahann, what a nice Christmas present! All I got were some sweaters and ties.

      I’m really looking forward to revisiting Didion. I read “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” way back in my first year of graduate school and immediately fell head over heels in love with her prose. Haven’t read it since, so this should be fun. And, in her most recent books, her writing is still razor-sharp. Thanks so much for your comments. Always appreciated.

      • John sent me this reply via email, but I wanted to share it:

        I’d forgotten that Mailer called “The Executioner’s Song” a “true life novel.” I remember the true part more than the novel part. You know, I’m very anti capital punishment, and I can still recall finishing the book in the apartment I lived in in Edison at the time and crying. No mean accomplishment on Mailer’s part to have sucked me in so completely.

        I was curious about what category Mailer won the Pulitzer in for this, and came upon this blog:

        http://thepulitzerblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/entry-66-the-executioners-song-by-norman-mailer-1980/

        Interesting complement to your re-reading endeavors.

        Of course, once I started thinking about George Plimpton and sports, I thought of other great reads from the era relating to sports, some journalism, some memoir, but all, in some way, to my mind, related to the reporting that you singled out. Here’s three that come to mind:

        · A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee (1965)

        · Ball Four, Jim Bouton (1970)

        · Instant Replay, Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap (1968)

        Very different books, but all taking a deeper look into sports performance and dynamics, and they all stuck with me to some degree.

  2. Lots of really great books here. Some of them, I never got around to reading. Some, I haven’t read in a long time. Where should I start?

    • That’s a tough one. Deserving books all. Hunter Thompson’s “Hell Angels” is probably not as widely read as some of the others on the list. So that might be a fun one to start with. My memory of it is that it is a wild, whacky ride. Really started the whole “Gonzo” thing going for him.

      And my next post is going to be on “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”–so that might be a good one to try out.

      Thanks, as always, for your comments. Always welcome.

  3. Thank you! Your selected books are…”I have not thought of this book in years!” time machines. It has been a joy to know them, again.

    • Thanks for the kind words. Yes, writing this blog has been a real joy for me too. If nothing else, it’s giving me a reason to connect with some old friends (i.e., books) that meant so much to me over the years.

  4. judithr

    Hi – I’m working towards being a journalist, and this piece caught my eye. I was wondering, can you recommend any of the books you have talked about (or ones you may have read in the past) for me, that quite simply is a book… about journalism, maybe different areas of journalism etc. Thanks! 🙂

    • Hmmm . . . while the books on my list are excellent examples of journalism, none of them is really “about” journalism as such. There are some really good books about writing out there (Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King On Writing), to name a few. I don’t have any other specific journalism recos, but I’ll ask around and see if I can come up with something. In the meantime, does anyone have any good recommendations for Judithr?

  5. Hey Erich I really enjoy your blog and am looking forward to your review of “in cold blood” what a great book-a fav. I am currently reading fear and loathing-I like it very much-am doing an interview of hunter s. with a hell’s angel on TV-you probably have seen it-I’ll put it on beatnikhiway- steinbeck was my fav. author growing up-I even have his autograph-I will try and keep up with you as you are so interesting- between 2 blogs and being an avid movie buff-I try to get reading in there somewhere-nothing like a good book
    Best hobo hippie

    • Thanks, hobo hippie — love your blog and the great stuff you put out there. You are a national treasure! Looking forward to seeing that Hunter S Thompson – Hell’s angel post. His book on the Angels is sooo cool and funny. Looking forward to revisiting it. Thanks for following along. Best, Erich

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