Be Better Buzzfeeders
Before the books arrived, Adam Gopnik, in an effort to be polite, almost contradicted the essential insight of his life. An essayist, critic, and reporter at The New Yorker for the last 31 years, he was asked whether there is an imperative for busy, ambitious journalists to read books seriously—especially with journalism, and not just White House reporting, feeling unusually high-stakes these days—when the doorbell rang in his apartment, a block east of Central Park. He came back with a shipment and said, “It would be,” pausing to think of and lean into the proper word, “brutally unkind and unrealistic to say, Oh, all of you should be reading Stendhal. You’ll be better BuzzFeeders for it.” For the part about the 19th-century French novelist, he switched from his naturally delicate voice to a buffoonish, apparently bookish, baritone.
Then, as he tore open the packaging of two nonfiction paperbacks (one, obscure research for an assignment on Ernest Hemingway; the other, a new book on Adam Smith, a past essay subject) and sat facing a wall-length bookcase and sliding ladder in his heavenly, all-white living room, Gopnik took that back. His instinct was to avoid sermonizing about books, particularly to colleagues with grueling workloads, because time for books is a privilege of his job. And yet, to achieve such an amazingly prolific life, the truth is he simply read his way here.
I spoke with a dozen accomplished journalists of various specialties who manage to do their work while reading a phenomenal number of books, about and beyond their latest project. With journalists so fiercely resented after last year’s election for their perceived elitist detachment, it might seem like a bizarre response to double down on something as hermetic as reading—unless you see books as the only way to fully see the world.
Being well-read is a transcendent achievement similar to training to run 26.2 miles, then showing up for a marathon in New York City and finding 50,000 people there. It is at once superhuman and pedestrian. My reporting was bound to overlook brilliant, worthy readers, but to help identify which journalists exemplify lifestyles of Serious Reading, it was useful to follow chains of admiration.