Alex Kotlowitz’s non-fiction favorites, Part I

Coming across this list of some of Alex Kotlowitz's favorite non fiction books was a Saturday morning treat.

Coming across this list of some of Alex Kotlowitz's favorite non fiction books was a Saturday morning treat.

 An undergraduate seminar I took with Alex Kotlowitz was one of my most valuable journalism school experiences.

I had to petition to get into the class, and I’m glad that it was accepted.  

The author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River not only was an excellent instructor-he laid out the method of getting story, reporting and writing and repeatedly emphasized the importance of telling detail-but he has proved to be extraordinarily generous in the six years since I took the class.  

One of the items Alex sent us after the class ended was a list of some of his non-fiction favorites with a very brief summary.  He made it clear both that he read largely in fiction and that the list was neither exhaustive nor in any particular order.

I came across the list this morning and thought it would be interesting to share some of them (It was a long list that I’ll continue to unspool over the next day or two.).

 I’ve starred the books that I have read.

Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar  Captures the excesses of the 1980s. On a corporate takeover. Riveting, even if you have no interest in business.

 *Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger  On the craziness surrounding high school football in a small Texas town.

The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee This or anything else by McPhee is must reading. 

*The Last Shot by Darcy Frey About an inner-city high school basketball team. Among the best of its genre. (For basketball fans, one of the stars is Stephon Marbury.)

*The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene On a Rabbi who, despite objections of his congregation, was active in the Civil Rights movement.

Upon This Rock by Sam Freedman  A year with an African-American minister and his congregation.

HomeTown  by Tracy Kidder Life in a small town. 

*My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Milan  About three murders in South Africa, all of which are reflections on the ugliness of apartheid.

*Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder  A year in an elementary classroom.

Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick The final years of the Soviet Union. Remnick, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is one of the nation’s premier journalists.

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean By the author of  A River Runs Through It; his obsession with unraveling the mystery behind the death of a battalion of smoke jumpers, young men who fought forest fires by parachuting into the woods.

What are your favorite non fiction books?  Which should not be on the list?  Which does Kotlowitz have right?  

This list continues tomorrow.


7 responses to “Alex Kotlowitz’s non-fiction favorites, Part I

  1. hey Jeff-
    i’m just finding your blog (via facebook). have read about a third (actually just finished Lenin’s Tomb)– thanks for adding to my reading list!

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Gordon, for your comment. I’m at about one third, too! I look forward to checking out Lenin’s Tomb.

      Hope all is well with you and the rest of the CMW crew.

      Let’s catch up soon!


  2. Great list! The two I would add are “Random Family” by Adrian Nicole Leblanc and Kotlowitz’s own “The Other Side of the River”.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, C. Flack. I hear you about the two suggestions. The list is circa 2003, before Random Family had really gotten into circulation.

      Thanks again for the invitation for next Saturday-I spoke with Mom and she is excited to see everyone-and I look forward to continuing the MJ and books conversation, among others!


  3. I want to give your question about favorite non-fiction books some thought. How can you decide? I think for me it’ll be the books that influenced me the most, that I’ve gone back to or have thought about the most after reading. Right away Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren is there; I love the description of the ending of the year: she had not finished, she had just run out of time. That speaks so powerfully to me as a teacher; you always want to and need to do more. Also Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground. I was a relative newcomer to Boston when it came out, and it gave me the deepened understanding of the recent history of the city that I craved. I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed to finish a book; I wished it could have just kept going and going. Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind could perhaps be number one. I was so moved by the American odyssey presented in the book, but perhaps even more so by the reality that if it was hard and uncertain that Cedric make it, with his skills, determination, and help, how remote is the possibility for others? It is such an unimaginable distance that must be traversed. All Souls, which lists the blogger in its credits (!), was gripping and gave voice to a story not at that point adequately presented. I loved its demonstration that family disfunction and violence do not have to be related to color (duh, but not enough established in the public mind). The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom by Herbert Gutman was seminal for me in its proof of the resilience of the black family; the simple thesis that slavery made family life impossible and that this is what has caused 20th century difficulty is shown to be false. Emotional Intelligence right away rang so true to me; yes, academic skills are important, but what really is most important for navigating the world? In A Different Voice by Carol Gilligan I loved because it challenged the standard paradigm of how to view women’s valuing of relationships; it is not a lower stage of development–perhaps it is something of importance that males have been missing! Taylor Branch’s trilogy America in the King Years was magnificent. I love that subtitle: “the King years.” Say what you may about King’s limitations, he was catalyst and moral warrior beyond compare. All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence by Fox Butterfield I have gone back to a few times. It starts with Willie Bosket, violent black American criminal, and asks, where did this man come from? How is he connected to the history of this country? The answer is very deeply connected.

    I’m going to think about this some more. Thanks for the suggestion. Of course I hope to get to more of the books on Kotlowitz’s list; I’ve read a few, but I’m sure they all are great!

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Dave, for this enormously thoughtful comment. I’m going to make it a post and look forward to seeing what else you come up with for your list. I’ve not read the second of the Branch trilogy, but have read and enjoyed all the rest of the books on your list.

      Thanks again, and I know we’ll talk soon!


  4. Pingback: Alex Kotlowitz’s Non-Fiction Favorites, Part II « Jeff Kelly Lowenstein’s Blog

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