Anne Fadiman: What I Read

A look at the media diet of essayist Anne Fadiman

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How do other people deal with the torrent of information that pours down on us all? Do they have some secret? Perhaps. We are asking various friends and colleagues who seem well-informed to describe their media diets. This is from an interview with Anne Fadiman, an essayist, reporter, and Francis Writer in Residence at Yale University, where she teaches nonfiction writing. Fadiman's 1997 book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

I get most of my news in print because I’m deeply in love with print journalism. The feel of the paper and the smell of the print—even the best-designed website can’t give me those.

We live in rural western Massachusetts, in a town so small there's no home delivery of the New York Times, so my husband picks it up at the gas station every morning. I have a Pavlovian response to the Times—it’s hard to swallow my coffee without it. And every morning, George walks down the driveway with our dog to fetch the Daily Hampshire Gazette, which is delivered. Local news is important. Without the Gazette's front-page story on the effects of climate change on the local maple sugaring industry, how would George and I have known why we'd produced so little syrup this year?

We subscribe to the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and Consumer Reports (because how could anyone buy a vacuum cleaner without it?). We get Harvard Magazine because we're alums and because that’s where I started as a writer. I wrote the undergraduate column for $25 a month, which seemed like a king's ransom in the early ’70s.

The only website I skim daily, because it sends me an e-mail, is the Chronicle of Higher Education. I used to get the paper edition when I was editor of The American Scholar, but the copies piled up alarmingly on my office floor. Two quarterlies I don’t subscribe to but read occasionally and really admire are Lapham’s Quarterly and Cabinet.

I also spend an awful lot of time reading undergraduate periodicals. There’s nothing like a bunch of smart young journalists to alleviate my fear that my field is doomed. I teach at Yale a couple of days a week, and since the publications are available for free outside every Yale dining hall, I always grab a fistful and read them on the train back to Massachusetts--the YDN Magazine (which I advise), The New Journal, The Herald, and The Lit. I'm looking forward to the maiden issue of The Critic, an undergraduate review of books that some of my students have edited. Best of all is the Yale Daily News. Every other month I go to Harvard for a meeting of the Board of Overseers, and I always read the Crimson while I'm there. When I was a Harvard student, the Crimson was better than the YDN, and it's still great, but today I think the YDN is even better.

Even though I’m addicted to documentary films, I hardly ever watch television news. Watching news on TV reminds me of what a Washington friend once said about understanding American history by tracking Congress: it’s like trying to tell time by watching the second hand.

I don’t follow any blogs. Not that there’s anything wrong with using one’s computer for a variety of purposes, but it’s like those suggestions that sleep physiologists make about not using your bedroom for anything other than sleeping. Because I write and edit and correspond on my computer, it feels sacred.

May I rant for a minute about online journalism? I realize that in this case I’m biting the hand that feeds me, but I worry about the potential of online news to be dangerously narrow. People who read a paper paper have to flip through a lot of international news before they get to what they think they’re interested in. They at least glance at the headlines, and maybe they read a few stories they hadn’t expected to. More and more, online news sources will give them only what they wanted in advance. If they've checked Sports or Celebrities, those stories will come up first. Custom filters are going to make Americans even more ignorant than they already are, which is plenty.

In fact, these worries actually make TV news look pretty good by comparison. It’s a lot more superficial than most papers, but if you want to watch the weather at the end of the program, you have to sit through everything that comes first, and you’ll probably end up learning the name of the president of Afghanistan whether you want to or not. In the future, the watchers of TV news--if it survives--may actually end up being our most globally attuned citizens.

I always listen to NPR in the car. I’m so fond of NPR that if I got used to listening to it at any other time, my workday would be doomed. When I’m in a car far from home and I don’t know where to find the local NPR station, I move up and down the dial frantically.

At the moment I have about 20 books on my bedside table. Real books. No Kindle. But many of them aren't exactly pleasure books--they're books I've been asked to blurb or some such. I won't get to them all. During term time, of course, most of my reading is student pieces, not books--aside from books for my classes, which I reread every year even if I've already read them twenty times.

My friend Lis Harris once told me that when she was a staff writer at The New Yorker, William Shawn frowned on his staff writers teaching writing because he thought their styles would be contaminated by their students' imperfect prose. I don’t think my students’ work improves my work, but it certainly doesn’t harm it, and I get intense pleasure from teaching. It feels at least as creative as writing. And some of my students write much better than I did at their age.

I like both fiction and nonfiction. My tastes are unoriginal. Ian McEwan and Jane Smiley have new novels I’m looking forward to reading this summer. I miss John Updike. I’m also fond of biography and literary journalism. John McPhee’s most recent book is on my bedside table. He’s been my hero ever since I was in college. Joan Didion and Ian Frazier are also at the top of my list. Gay Talese is still working, and still dazzling. I’m interested in medical writing, so my heart leaps up whenever I see a piece by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker. I also admire Adam Gopnik. The New Yorker still publishes most of my favorite prose. If anything ever happened to The New Yorker, I'd commit hara-kiri.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.