Inside the Story: Immersive and Personal Journalism

Memoir tends to be subjective, while journalistic writing aims at objective treatment of a topic. Then there are those books that combine these strengths, exploring a topic of interest from within, either through the eyes of someone whose experience gives them a revealing perspective, or a journalist who immerses themselves in the world they’re writing about. In both cases, the results can be both highly informative and deeply moving.

A classic example of the latter would be Among Schoolchildren, Tracy Kidder’s 1989 book in which the author spends nine months sitting a fifth grade classroom, closely reporting on the struggles and compromises he sees. The former moer personal approach to this topic is The Road Out: A Teacher’s Odyssey in Poor America, in which educator Deborah Hicks shares her experiences teaching and mentoring girls in an impoverished Cincinnati neighborhood.

A sadly fitting sequel at the other end of the school-to-prison pipeline might be Mikita Brottman’s The Maximum Security Book Club, a fascinating account of the author’s experiences over a couple of years, exploring literature with the inmates at a Baltimore prison. Few authors are so well situated as Bryan Stevenson to highlight the inequities and abuses of the American prison system, and his experiences as an attorney working on behalf of indigent clients in Alabama gives his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption rare and stirring power.

Proximity lends power to Doug Merlino’s The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White, in which the local author revisits Seattle’s cross-city basketball “dream team” of 1986, and how the players’ lives have diverged since then along largely racial lines. Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates tells a similar story that begins when the author learns of another man from his city and sharing his name but with a tragic life path.

In Walking With Abel: Journeys With the Nomads of the African Savannah, Anna Badkhen joins a family of nomadic herders in Mali as they make their annual migration across the savanna, an ancient way of life now challenged by urbanization, terrorism and climate change. After years working for Human Rights Watch in Africa, Ben Rawlence makes the refugee crisis real like few others in his City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. Of course there are many incomparable accounts by embedded war correspondents ranging from Sebastian Junger’s War to Kim Barker’s irreverent Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, while others dig into the roots of global conflict, as in Gretchen Peters’ examination of the Afghan heroine trade, Seeds of Terror.

Other interesting titles in the infinitely variable world of immersive journalism include Colson Whitehead’s The Noble Hustle about the World Series of Poker; Johnny Rico’s Border Crosser: One Gringo’s Illicit Passage from Mexico into America; Paul Clemens’ Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Detroit Auto Plant; Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table; Natalie Moore’s The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation; Victoria Sweet’s God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine; and Amy Willentz’s Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, and that’s just scratching the surface. What powerful and informative personal accounts would you recommend?

     – Posted by David W.

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