Susan Orlean’s Nonfiction Picks

Gaspar Tringale

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For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are author and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean’s answers:

Mother Jones: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

Susan Orlean: The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. A vivid, brilliant explanation of the world we now live in, with regards to Islamic fundamentalism, and a great read, thanks to Wright’s extraordinary reporting and storytelling. Not a cheerful book, but a brilliant one. 

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What’s so good about it?

SO: The White Album by Joan Didion. Everything about it is perfect—the writing, the thinking, the way it captured a moment in American culture.

MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?

SO: Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. My brother recommended it to me, and it changed everything for me: I had never read nonfiction that leaped off the page, never read anything that evoked a time and subculture with the same vividness. I couldn’t put it down, literally: I think I carried a copy with me for a year, and read it repeatedly, and dreamed of writing a book like it someday. 

MJ: What’s the most underrated book you’ve ever read, the gem of hidden gems?

SO: Hmm. Fiction? I’d say anything by Sebastian Barry—not that he’s underrated, but he hasn’t gotten the fame I would expect, given his incredible talent. As for nonfiction…not enough people read Joseph Mitchell anymore, although he is also not underrated; just not quite as acclaimed by the general public as I wish he were. I honestly can’t think of anything else at the moment but I’m not near a bookshelf so I’m relying on faulty memory, I’m afraid. 

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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