On The New Kings of Nonfiction

Though I’ve recently started listening to a lot of public radio, I’m fairly unfamiliar with Ira Glass and This American Life. In fact, I’ve never heard a single minute of the award winning program that Glass hosts and produces, nor do I have the slightest idea what he looks like or why he is so widely beloved at the moment.  But when I picked up The New Kings of Nonfiction and saw his name listed as editor of the collection, I figured it was about time I discovered what all the fuss was about.

The book is an assortment of nonfictional stories compiled by Mr. Glass himself. At first I requested it from my library assuming it would appeal to my newfound taste for essays. But in the introduction, Ira explicitly states that the pieces included therein are not essays at all, but rather true stories that are authentically, intelligently, and memorably told. The New Kings of Nonfiction is a testament to those modern writers who have mastered that delicate balance of skills required in any journalistic endeavor. Among them he includes Chuck Klosterman (a personal favorite of mine), David Foster Wallace, Bill Buford, Lawrence Weschler, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Savage, Michael Pollan, Susan Orlean, and many others.

Glass offers a selection of intriguing stories that present some larger truths in the telling of single events or encounters. The writers don’t always adhere to the standard rules of journalism, many of them allowing their own voices, thoughts, impressions, and emotions to become part and parcel of their final pieces. Others infuse their writing with a sense of humor and level of personality that many nonfiction writers consider anathema to the medium. But after reading all of these stories and digesting the central tenets of Glass’s introduction, it becomes clear that such a style of writing imparts immeasurable strengths to a writer’s nonfiction pieces, rather than detracting from them. Glass makes explicit the basic facets of great storytelling by carefully selecting a diverse collection of well-told stories.

Apart from demonstrating Ira’s aptness for story selection, The New Kings of Nonfiction offers some intriguing, entertaining, and memorable reading. A piece on Lois Weisberg, one of Chicago’s most well-connected and socially productive Renaissance women, unexpectedly but nonetheless aptly offers commentary on the pros of affirmative action. The first story included profiles a teenager who engaged in white collar stock market crime and ultimately speaks volumes about our nation’s economics and the at-times dangerous reach of technology. The lessons to be learned from each of the stories in Glass’ collection are often surprising and always significant.

Each story highlighted in this volume, though maybe not concerned with topics I would normally consider to be of interest, proved compelling and educational. Glass’ collection gave me pause to reflect upon my feelings toward nonfiction storytelling. In all honesty, I almost returned the book without reading a single story after I finished the introduction, so adverse was I to the notion of nonfictional stories. Few among the array of topics considered, from the stock market to soccer, sounded the least bit appealing. But I decided to give the first story a try, and then the second, and so on until I found myself converted.

I enjoy learning and reading is one of the primary venues through which I aim to educate myself. But these appeared, at first, to be arduous profiles of people, circumstances, and the like which had no relevance to me. Though I would still argue that most of the topics are far from relevant to my everyday life, the pieces within The New Kings of Nonfiction were entertaining rather than arduous and not completely irrelevant in theme. The factual nature of these stories makes them compelling in themselves,  and my impulse to continue reading was only enhanced by the quality of the writing.

For the endlessly interested individual, the type of person who finds anything and everything about the world we live in to be a source of excitement, Ira Glass’ The New Kings of Nonfiction is a no-brainer. But even to those of us who may be harder to convince, this nonfiction collection offers a captivating look at just a select few of the vast number of subjects about which and from which we can learn. And for those who love the written word, as a creative medium, a personal outlet, or a source of leisurely entertainment, Glass’ compilation is a wellspring of inspiration proving that good writing can transform just about any old topic into the stuff of a brilliant composition.

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