I never had any real interest in the Wright brothers until David McCullough wrote a book about them. His ability to tell a story made ME interested in what interested him. (HBO, by the way, has called him a ‘painter with words’. That may be excessive praise, but the short video they produced about him for their John Adams mini-series is worth watching.)
There are a handful of other writers of non-fiction who have the ability to make me interested in what interests them simply through the power of their storytelling.
I’m persuaded that Laura Hillenbrand could compose a telephone book that would be captivating reading. Many have read Unbroken
and found it good. Ms. Hillenbrand’s other book, Seabiscuit is about a racehorse and, we think, we have no interest in racehorses. Think again.
Those who have read her books will find this article by Wil Hylton, The Unbreakable Laura Hillenbrand a wonderful read in its own right as well as a fascinating insight both into her method and why books from her are slow in coming.
On the first day of a several day stay in downtown Chicago with my wife a few years ago, I bought and began to read Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. This book remarkably combines the fascinating story of the 1898 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the story of a serial murderer haunting the shadows of that event. The book’s subtitle tells it all: “Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America”. Reading it while in Chicago made it all the better, but wherever I would have read it Mr. Larson would have had my attention.
Other books by Larson are good, though a bit inconsistent in their ability to capture my interest. His latest, Dead Wake
, about the sinking of the luxury cruise liner Lusitania is very good.
A professor of creative non-fiction at Rollins College recommended to me David Mariniss’ book Rome 1960 about the summer Olympics of 1960. Suddenly reading about Wilma Rudolph and Cassius Clay and the barefoot marathoner from Ethiopia became what I HAD to do.
This list would not be complete without mentioning William Manchester. His biographies of Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar and of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion are so, so good and worthy of multiple readings.
The Churchill biography illustrates the power a gifted storyteller brings to the page. Manchester was able to complete the first two volumes of this three volume work telling Churchill’s story up to WWII. Subsequent to the publication of these, Manchester suffered a debilitating stroke which left him unable to finish the third planned volume. He passed his research on to a trusted friend who completed the work. The third volume lacks in the sparkle and narrative power of the first two. The storyteller had been replaced with a reporter.
Ambrose was once a prolific and always captivating author on the lives of the ordinary soldier of World War II. Band of Brothers is well known both as a book and as an excellent mini-series. Citizen Soldiers is an excellent reflection on how the demands of the war elicited uncommon leadership from common men and women. And Ambrose’s account of the explorations of Lewis and Clark, Undaunted Courage
explores similar themes in a different era. All are worth reading.
Sadly, in the last year of his life, charges of plagiarism tarnished his reputation. In defense, he admitted that he did not apply all the standards of an academic publication to his work, but leaned heavily on this assertion: “I tell stories.”
That is the gift of each of these. They tell stories – and I listen.