James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Books

  • 3 Different Topics, 3 Works Worth Reading

    The publishing industry is in terrible trouble, as we all know. But more high-quality work keeps getting published than anyone could possibly read. A few suggestions for today

    Roger Angell, via PBS

    1) You don't often read things in the periodical press and think, people will still want to read this many, many years from now. But I had that feeling when reading Roger Angell's remarkable "Life in the Nineties," in The New Yorker.

    Roger Angell has one of the longest and most distinguished writing careers in American letters, but I think this is his very finest work. You have probably heard about it by now. It is extraordinary.

    2) Angell is of course best known as a literary-sportswriter. A different kind of sports-and-society work is The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. This is hardly a darkhorse book, having been a best-seller list perennial since its appearance last year. But it is genuinely interesting on many levels, from the psychology (and physics and sociology and anatomy) of the once wildly popular sport of competitive rowing; to the class tensions and national rivalries in that sport; to the foreboding drama of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; to the particular culture of the Depression-era Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle.

    From Daniel Brown's site

    The shot above, from a promotional video for the book, shows (I am pretty sure) boats racing through the Montlake Cut in Seattle. "The Cut" is part of the canal between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound, and it is where the heroes of the tale, the nine-man University of Washington crew, were based. I assume this picture is of that boat, which means that it was taken nearly 80 years ago. The races on the Cut didn't look much different when we watched them while living in Seattle in the early 2000s.

    I could say more about the book and its obvious parallels, from The Amateurs to Chariots of Fire to Jesse Owens's story. Instead I'll just say that I'm glad to have read it and think most people will be too.

    3) I know John Judis somewhat and respect him greatly. His 1980s biography of William F. Buckley was penetrating and surprisingly sympathetic, given Judis's standing as a man of the Left. (He co-founded the magazine that became Socialist Review and wrote for In These Times.) Soon after George W. Bush became president, Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which made a case that seemed unlikely at the time but almost too obvious now. (In brief: that demographic and educational changes were working powerfully to the Democrats' advantage on the national level.) 

    John Judis, via CEIP

    John Judis has spent nearly a decade on his new book, Genesis, the story of how Harry Truman decided to throw his and America's weight so strongly behind the creation of Israel. The book also explores what long-term tensions Truman's decisions both resolved and increased. This book has the same careful, deliberate authority, but with an edge, that has characterized Judis's other work. You can read a New Republic excerpt from it here. For instance from that excerpt:

    Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”

    There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.

    When Truman assumed office in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had little knowledge of Palestine and even less of what Roosevelt’s policies in the region had been. What immediately concerned him was what to do about the Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Nazi’s final solution, most of whom were stranded in ramshackle displaced person camps in Central Europe, and some of whom wanted to migrate to Palestine. Truman was deeply sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and defied the British, who still controlled Palestine and were worried about the Arab reaction, by calling for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be let in.

    I mention this book both because I learned a lot from it, and because it was the object of a churlish put down on (surprise!) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. For instance, and incorrectly, "Genesis reduces [Truman's] tortuous deliberation into a simplistic tale of Jewish bullying."

    You can read what strike me as more accurate, though sometimes critical, assessments in the Jewish Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The American Prospect, and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

    "The press" is in trouble, as we always hear. But more high-quality work keeps appearing than anyone could possibly read.

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  • 'Unsavory Elements' in Reddit AMA

    Foreigners on the loose, available in an Ask Me Anything session.

    Unsavory Elements is a new book of reflections, tales, and memoirs of China by 28 foreigners who have lived there. It's edited by Tom Carter, and among the contributors is my wife Deb, known to the reading public for Dreaming in Chinese and imaginatively but more or less realistically portrayed in the cartoon above. See if you can pick her out. I feel fully entitled to reprint the cartoon, since I bought a color original from the artist

    Starting at 8am Eastern time on December 6, the Unsavory authors and their editor Tom Carter will be doing a 24-hour-long AMA on Reddit. You can find a Facebook description of the event here; an Atlantic interview of Carter by Matt Schiavenza here; another Q&A with him here; a list of the contributors' books here; and a link to Reddit Books, which will host the chat, here. I can think of a few questions I would like to ask one of the contributors.

    Here's the cover. Ask away.

  • For Your China Reading List: 'Wealth and Power'

    What does China want? What is all this growth for? An approximation of the answer.


    You could have a long debate on whether we're in anything like a Golden Age for China itself. But beyond debate it is a golden age of writing about China, and therefore of things to read. There are overviews; universe-in-the-particular microcosmic accounts; memoirs; novels; long-suppressed histories; Chinese literature in translation; foreign-language accounts, more in English than in any other language.

    You hardly need make an actual visit to the country! Although of course you should. Here's the latest entry in the golden-age chronicles: Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-First Century, by Orville Schell and John Delury. 

    I'm biased, in that one of the authors, Orville Schell, is a long-time colleague and close friend. But until this evening -- when the two of them, with another friend, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, did an event at Politics & Prose in Washington -- I had not met his co-author, John Delury. And even if I'd never heard of anyone involved with the book, I'd suggest you read it if you're at all interested in China. It's both historical and current, and it does a better job than most other books of answering a basic question the rest of the world naturally asks about China's recent rise: What does China want? (Granting the preposterousness of this question, as applied to a diverse group of a billion-plus people.) What is all the building and bustle and sacrifice and preening for

    You may not be certain of the answer to that question by the time you finish the book, but you'll be in very good position to discuss it. Also, you can hear the authors tomorrow morning (as I write), 11am EDT July 18, talking about the book on the Diane Rehm show

    Update: My friend Christina Larson has a nice examination on the trend of translated books back and forth between China and the Western world.

  • Reading Tip: 'The Twenty-Year Death'

    Looking for an absorbing noir read? Here are three books in one.

    I really should have mentioned this in time for the long, book-reading-friendly "festive" period stretching from Thanksgiving to the New Year holidays, but, hey, I was reading the book myself then. And Inauguration Day, MLK Day, Chinese New Year, etc are still ahead, and it's still summer reading period in Australia. So:

    20Year.pngIf you're looking for a good, lengthy, high-end-diversion read, let me suggest The Twenty-Year Death, by Ariel S. Winter. Cover shown at right, when I was reading the book at Thanksgiving time. This is part of the "Hard Case Crime" series that I've discussed over the years, for instance here back in 2008  and here about a year ago. The series is a combination of resurrected noir classics, with 1950s-and-earlier cover art, and original works.

    Twenty-year is in the brand-new category, and is quite a tour de force. It is long because it is actually three novels, with an overlapping set of characters. The first is in the style of Georges Simenon; the second, Raymond Chandler; and the third, the immortal (and amoral*) Jim Thompson. The Simenon story is set in France in 1931, and the Chandler and Thompson episodes in greater L.A., in 1941 and 1951 respectively. For my taste, Winter's evocation of each writer's stye and sensibility becomes steadily more effective as the book goes on, so that by the end the Thompson section could fit right along such bleak classics as The Killer Inside Me. If you're in the mood for this kind of thing, this is the thing to read.

    This is Winter's first novel. Keep writing!
    * For later discussion: Why I am drawn to the noir writers who portray amoral-and-worse characters from the inside, ranging from Thompson to Patricia Highsmith to Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl. Hmm, maybe this is a question I should not ask.

  • Seasonal Gratitude, Book Dept.

    Family news on the book front.

    DreamingUSCover.pngClive Crook has written a wonderful appreciation of Dreaming in Chinese, by Deborah Fallows, who for this and many other reasons I am delighted to say is my wife. The book has received a lot of positive reviews, but I think Clive comes closer than anyone else to capturing its spirit and value. Check it out -- Clive's item, and the book.

    I am also grateful to Ian Johnson and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, themselves the authors of a number of very valuable books about China (and, in Johnson's case, on Europe-and-Islam as well), for a year-end wrapup of books about China, at the Asia Society's site. Their discussion of the books they're considering, whose covers are shown in the collage below, makes me want to get and read the two I haven't already seen. And of course I am grateful that they include China Airborne in their list (and for Johnson's previous article about it in the NY Review of Books).

     Thanks to all. 

    2012_17_12_Book Collage.jpg

  • In Boston: Wednesday at MIT, Thursday at Porter Square Books

    A trip northward from DC, to discuss China and America

    My wife and I look forward to these next few days in Boston -- the place where she and I met, the place where I spent ages 1 to 2, the place where my sister now lives.

    On Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 5, I'll be at MIT's Media Lab from 4:30 to 6 for a presentation called "An American in China." I think that would be me! Details here. Admission free.

    On Thursday evening, my wife and I will be at Porter Square Books in Cambridge at 7:00pm. Details here.

    This might be the moment to mention that the estimable Tyler Cowen, of George Mason University and the Marginal Revolution blog, has recently said that:

    My favorite nonfiction book this year has been James Fallows's "China Airborne." On the surface it's about aviation in China, but it's also one of the best books on China ever, one of the best books on industrial organization in years, and an excellent treatment of economic growth. It's also readable and fun.

     The greatness of Tyler Cowen knows no limits. But you'd probably want to check it out for yourself. See you in Boston/Cambridge.

  • Your Mid-August Reading Tips, Part I

    Timely reading on three important Topics In The News.

    Suarez.jpg1) Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez. Over the months Atlantic writers have considered how much less attractive military-drone technology will seem, from the American perspective, when it is no longer a U.S. monopoly. See installments by Steve Clemons, Robert Wright, and me, including allusions to David Ignatius's novel Bloodmoney.

    In Ignatius's book, drones were an incidental motivating factor. In Daniel Suarez's Kill Decision, they are the center of the action. Timely, cautionary -- and of course very interesting.

    2) The Party Is Over, by Mike Lofgren.

    Lofgren is a long-time Congressional staff member, recently retired, whom I have quoted frequently in this space. His new book, which came out just last week, is an expansion of the jeremiad from him that I discussed last year. For a gloss on his topic and appropriately sympathetic book review, see this essay by my friend (and also Lofgren's) Chuck Spinney in Counterpunch. Also this essay by Kelley Vlahos in The American Conservative.

    3) "7 Reasons Why Israel Should Not Attack Iran's Nuclear Facilities," by the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, over the weekend on our site. I have one percent as many contacts in Israel as Jeff Goldberg does, but even I have started getting messages from friends there saying that the bomb-Iran drumbeat is reaching new intensity.

    From the start, the main problem I have had believing that the Netanyahu team could be serious about these threats is that a bombing attack on Iran would be so recklessly self-defeating, above all for Israel. Goldberg's item lays out the self-defeating aspects systematically and convincingly. Let's hope they are convincing to the audience that matters within the Israeli government.

    Stay tuned for Part II, with a China theme, this evening (or when I get to it).
  • 'The Flight to Zhuhai,' Illustrated Edition

    How we looked, before and after a memorable flight

    The item posted a few minutes ago on this site, which is part of the 'China Takes Off' special coverage we are featuring this month, is drawn from the introduction to my book China Airborne, whose official pub date is a week from today. Also: the current issue of Popular Science has a nice (in my view) excerpt from the book describing how China is planning to cope with the environmental consequences of its aerospace boom.

    A few words to put this excerpt in context. It describes my wild-and-woolly first encounter with the world of small-plane flight in China, soon after I moved there in 2006. The larger point of the book is to ask whether the whole roiling, exciting, fast-changing, uncontrollable Chinese "miracle" of the past generation will lead the country to a further level of technological and economic sophistication -- or limits of various sorts are now coming into view. That is, it's a "China Takes Off" question. This section gives a glimpse of an area where China's government strategists and individual visionaries (and boosters and idealists) are trying hardest, and fastest, to remake their country's fortunes -- and their own.

    Exploring the growth of a massive economy See full coverage

    A word to aviators: the last part of this excerpt describes how Peter Claeys, my friend who was "pilot in command" for this flight, and I reacted when the instrument-landing beam at Zhuhai airport momentarily failed. I have deliberately put the description in slow-mo terms. In reality, no more than two or three seconds passed between an indication of trouble and our glimpse through the clouds. Claeys's hand was on the throttle instants away from pushing it full-forward for the "go missed" procedure. But three seconds of chronological time felt like about ten years of emotional time, which is why I have described it the way I did.

    Now, to the photos. I mentioned that we had some trouble finding "AvGas" to get the plane fueled in the first place. This is the kind of thing I had in mind. This is an actual photo of refueling the plane at the Changsha airport, about an hour before we took off. That's Claeys in the truck along with staff members of the Broad Air Conditioning company. I explain in the book why the Broad people were involved.

    Thumbnail image for Refueling1.JPG

    Here is how it looked when the same plane was being refueled in Japan, on another trip I took with Claeys.


    As I explained several years ago, the two photos reminded me that Japan was all about the way of doing things, and China is all about finding a way to do things.

    In the excerpt I describe the three "souls aboard" on this eventful but turned-out-fine flight: Peter Claeys, our Chinese friend Walter Wang, and me. Here we are, in grateful mood after landing at Zhuhai -- from left, it's Claeys, Wang, Fallows:

    Thumbnail image for Zhuhai3.JPG

    This excerpt talks about a famous Chinese female aviator and business woman, Chen Yan. We spent the evening in her "Blue Angel" bistro in Zhuhai, whose walls bear many photos of her, like this one:


    And the point of this trip was to get the little Cirrus SR-22 in which we were flying to the Zhuhai Air Show, where producers and purchasers from around the world gather to display and inspect their wares. The vast expanse of the Zhuhai runway and ramp area, barely used most of the year, is during the air show covered with aircraft large and small. If you look really hard, you can see the same Cirrus SR-22 in which we had been flying nestled beneath the tail of this gigantic Russian airplane.

    Thumbnail image for Zhuhai5.JPG

    The excerpt also talks about the "booth babes" who were a notable feature of the Zhuhai air show. I have some pictures of them, too, but for another time.
  • The (Last) Return of Donald Westlake

    A reviewer, an author, a notable series: bingo!

    WestlakeCover.jpgThis is a trifecta! I'm able to knit together three previous contacts and/or themes.

    #1: Patrick Anderson, who was long ago my mentor/boss on the Carter '76 campaign team, and who since then has been a book writer and regular book reviewer for the Washington Post.

    #2: The late Donald Westlake, a master of the comedic crime novel who was so prolific that he adopted a whole slew of pen names, much as Michael Crichton did, to avoid possible recoil at the sheer quantity of his (nonetheless very good) work. Previous mention here.

    #3: Charles Ardai, whose wonderful Hard Case crime-novel series I've raved about before.

    #1 -> #2 -> #3 harmonic convergence triple play: Two days ago in the Washington Post,  Anderson reviewed The Comedy is Finished, a recently discovered book by Westlake, that is coming out under Ardai's Hard Case imprint. (The book also has one of Hard Case's trademark 1950s pulp-look covers, at right. Another example is below -- from a book by Ardai himself under his alias, Aleas.) I would be a fool to ignore this combination of auguries, so I've ordered the book. Will check in with results.


  • A Great New Hampshire-Weekend Read

    Heard enough about New Hampshire tracking polls? Here's something more enjoyable to read

    There's a lot of politicking still ahead of us, so to pace myself I need a break from insights about the Live Free or Die state and whether it will support a "Santorum surge," and so on. In case you're in a similar mood, here is a tip for enjoyable political reading this weekend:

    WalterShapiro.pngYou can go to your local bookstore, should one quaintly still exist, or look online for Walter Shapiro's One-Car Caravan, his idiosyncratic and entirely charming report on the early stages of the 2004 presidential campaign. The book's publication date is 2003, which is a clue to what is unusual in its approach. Walter Shapiro (disclosure: a long-time friend) began covering the field of Democratic aspirants two years before the election, in 2002. At the time, John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, et al had no media pools following them and were meeting potential supporters and donors in groups of two or three. Walter traipsed around the country with them, and his resulting report has the kind of timeless texture and insight about politics that you also find in the (better-known and much longer) What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer's wonderful account of the 1988 campaign.

    It is also a sympathetic and human book, in an enriching rather than a sappy way. One of the surprises of the book is how much Walter Shapiro ends up, yes, liking John Kerry, against Shapiro's own anti-snob instincts and contrary to the well-established image of Kerry as a stiff. He makes Kerry likable to the reader, too -- maybe the DNC should have thought of airdropping the book over Ohio in 2004. The book also has this to say about the process we're now living through:

    As a political reporter, I am prepared to offer a spirited defense of New Hampshire's outsized role in presidential politics. Nowhere else in the nation do voters display such fidelity to old-fashioned civic obligations.... New Hampshire may be a living monument to participatory democracy, but what in God's name is the justification for making the Iowa caucuses the campaign equivalent of the book of Genesis?

    He goes on to explain his complaint about what the Iowa caucuses have done to politics, journalism, and American life. I am biased in Walter Shapiro's favor. He and I started out at the Washington Monthly together back in the Watergate era, and just after Walter's own quixotic attempt as a 25-year-old to unseat an incumbent Republican congressman in Michigan. But you don't have to know him to find this book enjoyable and still-relevant. Check it out.

  • If You're in Princeton on Sunday Afternoon

    Garden Staters' chance to hear about 'Dreaming in Chinese'!

    Come by the Princeton Public Library, on Witherspoon Street, at 3pm to see someone I know to be a great speaker (my wife) talk about what I know to be a great book (her Dreaming in Chinese). I mention this both out of uxorious support and in a desire to be helpful, since several sites had the event listed at varying times (1pm, 7:30pm, etc). It's actually at 3. Tell her hello.
  • Pierre Sprey on Book TV: Tonight at 9

    A chance to see one of technology's most original thinkers


    Thirty years ago, Pierre Sprey (left) was, like John Boyd and Chuck Spinney, one of the protagonists of my book National Defense. He is a great, innovative thinker who is always worth listening to, and tonight on C-Span he hosts an interview with William Hartung, about Hartung's book Prophets of War. Airing at 9pm Eastern; full schedule here. Very much worth checking out (or setting your TiVo for).  

  • 'Best Book' Fiesta

    It's that time of year: Best Book lists!

    I generally dread year-end lists of anything, but the worthiness of the book business makes me happy to pitch in on "best book of the year" compendia. In my enthusiasm, I've contributed to three such lists:

    - The Atlantic's "Best Book I Read This Year" slideshow feature, here. Happily I've already read many of the books recommended by my colleagues, but I'm starting on the ones I haven't, beginning with James Gibney's nominee, The White Tiger.

    - Foreign Affairs recently compiled a list of suggested books for the years ahead; I weighed in with a bunch, all of which I heartily endorse.

    - Today Salon had its list too, for which I recommended a book that one of my colleagues picked for the Atlantic list. The last one I mention here is my sentimental favorite of all the year's offerings.

    Read 'em all! Enjoy.    

  • If You're Going to be in Austin This Weekend...

    A conversation with Karl Marlantes at the Texas Book Festival

    ... well, congratulations! We lived there for a total of four years during and after my wife's time as a U of Texas doctoral student in linguistics, and like all former residents have memories that are (pleasantly) dominated by barbecue joints, Tex-Mex, beer halls, music, Barton Springs, etc. Plus, of course, "study" and "work." The big constant in Austin life is the "Oh, it used to be so great here, but growth has spoiled the 'real' Austin" lament. That is what we heard from old timers on arrival in the mid-70s, and it's what we've heard on all return visits since. I'm sure the complaint is always true -- and always false, because it still seems pretty great.

    This weekend in particular, Austin will be graced by the 2010 Texas Book Festival, an event started by Laura Bush when she was the state's First Lady in the mid 1990s. I've mentioned several times over the past year -- including here, here, and here -- my admiration and enthusiasm for Matterhorn, the majestic novel of the Vietnam war by Karl Marlantes. I'm delighted to have a chance to interview Karl Marlantes at the festival, at 10am Saturday morning. Details here and here. Be there!

    Also, at 3:15, I'll have a chance to interview another book festival author: a product of the University of Texas's linguistics department who has written about the pleasures and satisfactions of learning the Chinese language. Looking forward to that one too.

  • If You're in the Boston Area Tonight....

    Dreaming in Chinese goes to Boston

    .... the Dreaming in Chinese world tour has its next stop at the Harvard Book Store, in Cambridge, at 7pm. Details here. The author will certainly be there. All other work circumstances in DC going well, her husband will be too. Scenes from a west coast stop ten days ago:

    Thumbnail image for DebPortland1.jpg

    And in reporter mode in  Shanghai three months ago:


    If I'm not there, say hi to her for me.


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