Instant Replay, by Jerry Kramer (as told to Dick Schaap)
When I started following sports, so much of the coverage was either just-the-facts-ma’am newspaper reporting or NFL Films-style glorification. This book gave me a sense of what playing pro football was actually like. When I first read it, at age twelve, I thought I wanted to be Jerry Kramer. Turns out I really wanted to be Dick Schaap.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
This is a work of fiction—but just barely. All the characters were easily identifiable as actual people in Kerouac’s freewheeling postwar life. On the Road inspired me to read other Beat Generation writing. What I soon found was that I was more interested in reading about the Beats than in reading their work. That was a key step in my transition from an aspiring novelist to a journalist. I realized that I wanted to read about events that had actually happened—not made-up stories.
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
Yes, I know: another work of fiction. But I liked this because the “plot,” such as it was, was really just a framework for Vonnegut’s scathing observations about modern American life, such as the grade-school notion that Columbus “discovered” America in 1492: “Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.” Part of a writer’s job is to be a skeptic.
Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon
This book inspired me to spend two months bicycling across the country, from Cape Cod to California. So, yeah, I’d say that counts as a significant influence. My plan was to document my journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately, all I really discovered about myself was that A) I’d rather write about other people than about me and B) I lacked the capacity to record insightful observations while biking 140 miles across the Mojave Desert on a 96-degree day.
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
Another book that provided an Aha moment. “History” didn’t have to be either a dry chronology or a disconnected collection of bet-you-didn’t- know-this facts. With sufficient research and discipline, you can tell a story that’s as compelling as a novel—but that has far greater power because it’s true.
The Great Shark Hunt, by Hunter S. Thompson
Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s best-known work, was highly entertaining. But I’m guessing its success left Thompson feeling trapped. From then on he had to live up to his reputation as a Gonzo journalist. The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of his work from both before and after Vegas, has greater depth and breadth. It reveals that, for all his stylistic indulgences, Thompson was a great reporter first. It was instructive for me, when I first read this book in my early twenties, to realize that a “voice” is not contrived. It’s something that a writer arrives at slowly, and through years of work.