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 post. I 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.
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.
“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.
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
- In Cold Blood (1965)
- The Armies of the Night (1968)
- Of a Fire on the Moon (1970)
- 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)
- Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968)
- The White Album (1979)
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.