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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As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

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