As the academic year gets underway, we decided to ask some top narrative journalism instructors what they’re assigning their students to study this semester and why. There are some tried-and-true favorites, certainly. You might expect Susan Orlean‘s “The American Male at Age Ten” and Melissa Fay Greene’s “Praying for Sheetrock” to appear on our experts’ syllabi. But some of their choices may surprise you. The Book of Genesis, anyone?

Our class will meet twice this week, with the first set of recommendations posted today and the rest Wednesday.  So pull out your Trapper Keeper and make your own list of required reading from our instructors’ favorites.

Alex Kotlowitz

Alex Kotlowitz

Alex Kotlowitz, author of “There are No Children Here,” as well as a producer of the documentary “The Interrupters” and contributor to the “This American Life” series on Chicago’s Harper High School, is co-teaching a graduate course on narrative non-fiction this fall at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, along with Douglas Foster, a former editor of Mother Jones and author of “After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” These are some of the works they like to assign:

From Kotlowitz:

“The Laramie Project.” I don’t know that Moises Kaufman and company think of this as journalism but it is. And it’s a terrific example of storytelling in which the narrator (in this case, narrators) step completely out of the way.

Jessica Stern’s “Denial: A Memoir of Terror.” I’m not a huge fan of memoir, but this is, in my mind, what memoir ought to be about: an honest searching to make sense of the past. Stern may not think of herself as a journalist, but she’s a terrific reporter. (Also David Carr‘s “The Night of the Gun” and Ariel Sabar‘s “My Father’s Paradise” fit this bill, as well.)

Darcy Frey‘s “The Last Shot,” which speaks to when first person is necessary — and a reminder that even with first person readers really don’t care much about us. (Darcy uses first person for purely practical reasons: because there are scenes he can’t let unfold without acknowledging his presence. In the end, we learn little about Darcy. He keeps us focused on the main subjects of the book, these young struggling high school basketball players.)

Tracy Kidder‘s “Strength in What Remains” A remarkably intimate story in which Tracy gets us to inhabit the very soul of his central character,  young refugee from Burundi. (It’s also an interestingly structured book: the first half told in third person; the second told in first person.) 

Doug Foster

Doug Foster

From Foster:

“Lucky Jim,” by Elizabeth Gilbert, in GQ, for how to use chronology as your friend and how to know when you have the right reason to break from it. The final section recreates the day before a monumental event –the morning her subject is hit by a truck “for the first time.” Usually, enough students think that close doesn’t work that we have a terrific argument over it.

The first three chapters of Genesis and the Kiowa Creation Legend, to get them thinking of the deep history of different storytelling approaches.

“The Marriage Cure,” by Katherine Boo in The New Yorker for the example of immersion reporting, multiple points of view and emphasis on telling the story through unfolding action.

Laurie Abraham’s profile of Brittney Griner for Elle, a nice clean profile of someone who is not gabby and whose story reveals a larger significance the subject does not even seem aware of.

Kelley Benham French/Photo by Cherie Diez, Tampa Bay Times

Kelley Benham French/Photo by Cherie Diez, Tampa Bay Times

Kelley Benham French, a professor of practice at Indiana University and 2013 Pulitzer finalist, offers this reading list:

“The Fiddler in the Subway,” by Gene Weingarten [Washington Post]. I’ve never met him, but Gene Weingarten is my biggest journalism crush. (Are you reading this Gene? My cheeks are all red.) His stories are just so damn smart, and complex, and gorgeous.
“Into the Lonely Quiet,”  by Eli Saslow [Washington Post.]  The best newspaper story I’ve read in the last five years that wasn’t written by Gene Weingarten.
For Their Own Good”and its follow-up, “100 Years Later and It’s Still Hell” by Ben Montgomery at the Tampa Bay Times. For the marriage of investigative and narrative elements, for courageous reporting, for elegant and muscular writing, for finding storytelling details in agonizing, hard-won interviews and in long-buried documents in musty basements. For Ben, who gave a damn before anyone else did. For all those lost, dead boys, who now have been brought back up out of their graves.

On Wednesday, we hear from Pulitzer-prize-winning feature writer and former “This American Life” producer Lisa Pollak, who is teaching at Columbia University this fall; the Nieman Foundation’s narrative non-fiction instructor Steve Almond; and Ashland University professor and Gangrey podcast host Matt Tullis. And if you’ve got some suggestions of your own, send them our way at

Further Reading

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