This book was recommended to me in an AMA by journalist Rick Perlstein. I asked Mr. Perlstein how important he felt higher education was for journalists, and he answered:
Great question! Journalism used to be a lot less “professionalized.” It was basically a working class profession. Its practitioners were a lot more worldly in a way—they knew people from all walks of life. The fact that journalists are better educated is a paradoxical hindrance to that—they’re sociologically sheltered. I was shocked by a reporter for This American Life, in a report on the explosion of disability claims, who apparently didn’t know how stressful it was to have a job where you have to stand up all day. Ben Hecht would have never have been so callow. Read his memoir ,”Child of the Century,” which is my favorite non-fiction book, and captures the pre-Columbia Journalism School world brilliantly.
I hadn’t heard of Ben Hecht before then. When I looked him up on Wikipedia I realized that somehow I’d missed someone who was regularly referred to as the “Shakespeare of Hollywood,” which is not a subtle nickname. Hecht’s writing output shamed me immediately, though I rebounded quickly and turned this into energy for work, which is something you try to learn quickly, or at least quicker than you learn to sulk and retreat into whichever comfy and reliable distraction is closest.
Hecht wrote an almost ridiculous amount of content. He even did uncredited re-writes on The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 film based on a Hungarian play called Parfumerie, both of which are the basis for You’ve Got Mail, one of my all-time favorite movies.
This guy was quickly becoming someone I had to know as much about as possible. Of course this means the book in question, Child of the Century, was not only out-of-print but used copies were astronomically priced. I even tweeted at Politics & Prose to see if they had the rights to print a copy in-store, like they offered to do when I was searching for The Holy Barbarians by Lawrence Lipton (a book I knew about thanks to Rory Gilmore). They did not, and I was sad. Ready to give up.
One last place contained a hope for me to mine, though, a place that has more hope than it is often given credit for. The library. I feel like that should be capitalized. The Library.
One of my favorite local libraries had a copy (yes, I have multiple favorite local libraries), and although it’s a little beat up it’s still going home with me. I’ve been focused on a lot of non-fiction lately - not at the complete expense of fiction, though - and journalism specifically. I’m working my way through All the President’s Men for the first time; a copy of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and The Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg is making its way to me, along with Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.
I worked at a small hometown newspaper briefly, covering school board meetings and the occasional controversy, like the time someone was trying to sell the old hospital and all of its land on EBay for $1 million. It was one of my favorite jobs, though the writing I did there wasn’t extraordinary or too memorable. I left in a hurry, mostly because the management wasn’t sure how to deal with me, but that absolutely had to do with my own confusion about what to do with me too. I convinced myself journalism wasn’t the writing I enjoyed. Now I’m pretty sure I was wrong about that.
The other night I re-watched All the President’s Men (after I picked up the book), and the idea that to be a journalist you need a degree or even more specifically an Ivy League and/or prestigious degree seems implausible and ludicrous. Carl Bernstein dropped out of high school and started working at a paper when he was 16.
I hope I’m not putting too much on the shoulders of Ben Hecht and his memoir. With more and more energy building, seemingly to be directed toward some kind of journalism, I’m thrilled to be thinking that I can do it not despite my circumstances and choices but because they give me a unique perspective.