Martin Amis once said that a writer’s life should be split into three parts: living, writing, and reading.
It is a widely accepted truth that the more you read, the better the writer you become.
As a wannabe hack, I’m sure I’m not alone in often feeling hard-pushed to find the time to read – somewhere between chasing stories, interviews, editing, reading the papers and trawling the web for articles/cat .gifs, and forgetting it all in the pub, the spare minutes in the day left to sit and pick up a book disappear.
However, the chance should be taken when it arises.
Reading helps a writer to improve his or her vocabulary and turn of phrase. It also gives the benefit of helping them to carve out their own style. This, as any well-known columnists or feature writers will tell you, is crucial in breaking in to the industry. Having copy that is instantly recognisable as yours marks you out to future employers.
Speaking to a retired national journalist a few weeks ago, I was told that one of the most difficult things about being a fledgling hack is the expectation of authority on practically every subject. He said that regular reading was one of the only ways he managed to keep up with the history and facts he was presumed to know by his news editor.
If anything has inspired me to be a journalist, it’s reading about the lives of those in the industry that I admire – the ones who have seen what you hope to see and written stories you wish you had written.
With all this in mind, it’s hard to write a definitive list on must-read books for wannabes, but I will do my best.
My Paper Chase by Sir Harold Evans.
The memoir of one of the most famous editors in British history. Famous for his work with the Sunday Times Insight team which exposed, among many other things, the dangerous effects of thalidomide on newborns.
The Road Taken by Michael Buerk
For many years he was one of the BBC’s most well-known faces, not only as the face of 999, but as an award-winning video journalist who broke the story of the Ethiopian famine. His book details his steady rise into the industry and both the joys and dangers of being a reporter on the front line.
Stick it up your punter! By Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie
A brilliant and hilarious look at the rise of the Sun under Rupert Murdoch. An especially important read at the moment, it covers the less dignified side of tabloid journalism, the story behind headlines such as “The Truth” and “Gotcha!” and profiles the “Dirty Digger” in a none too flattering light.
On the front line – The collected works of Marie Colvin
The Sunday Times foreign correspondent who was tragically killed in Syria in February this year spent her entire career in the most dangerous warzones on Earth. This posthumous collection of her articles is not only an inspiring read, it also serves as a fountain of knowledge on all things concerning war and reporting on it.
Flat Earth News by Nick Davies
Guardian journalist Nick Davies takes an undercover look at journalism in the modern day and discovers a media which publishes falsehoods, distortions and propaganda. In the books, he uses off-the-record sources to paint a picture of an industry buckling under the pressure of producing quality content while profits fall. A scary but essential read for any wannabes.
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
Not as intimidating as the previously mentioned but equally good. Jon Ronson reports on “The Madness Industry” by interviewing psychologists, mass murderers and former MI5 agents turned transvestite conspiracy theorists. Gonzo journalism has slipped away in recent years but this book shows why it is still relevant.
You Can’t Read This Book by Nick Cohen
One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in years. This excoriating work on censorship in the 21st century looks at superinjunctions, China’s “Great Firewall”, and the suppression of writers criticising the state or religion. Challenge the title and you will not be disappointed.
Unreliable Sources by John Simpson
A brilliant history of journalism in the 1900s. John Simpson covers the stories behind some of the biggest scoops in the past 100 year, from the Boer War to Blair. A thoroughly engaging look at the press at its best and worst.
What books would you recommend to fellow wannabes? Let us know in the comments section or tweet us @WannabeHacks.
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