When it came to reading books, David Carr had a hierarchy, as he explained in his March 19, 2014, New York Times column: “Books I’d like to read, books I should read, books I should read by friends of mine and books I should read by friends of mine whom I am likely to bump into.”
Carr, who passed away Thursday night at age 58, regularly weighed in on journalism books in his “Media Equation” column and occasionally in the New York Times Book Review. Usually they were books about journalism, strictly speaking, but often they were books by journalists that revealed something Carr found meaningful about their work and their business. Sometimes he devoted entire columns to a book, sometimes just a single, perfect sentence. Below are some of the books Carr discussed over the years, along with his distillation:
Every other year, Mr. Woodward, arguably the pre-eminent journalist of the last three decades, will emerge from his headquarters in Georgetown with a book full of federal intrigue, gold-plated sources and the dark arts of Washington. . . . This was Mr. Woodward’s third book about the Bush presidency. After two friendly tours — “Bush at War” and “Plan of Attack” — he decided to set off a grenade deep inside the administration. . . . Critics have already said that he missed the Bush story while standing in the middle of it. But his work is not so much beyond consequence as above it, held aloft by his spectacular career and a superseding contract with the reader that he will take them inside the parlor.
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson, which Carr mention in a May 2008 column on the fortunes of Wired magazine:
Mr. Anderson penned a conceptual book, “The Long Tail,” that became a keystone for PowerPoints all over the land.
Big Russ and Me: Father & Son, Lessons of Life by Tim Russert, which Carr discussed in a June 2008 column following Russert’s death, also at age 58:
He reinforced his lunch-bucket credentials, coming up with a best-selling book about his father, “Big Russ and Me,” that turned a chip on his shoulder about his humble roots and lack of Ivy League pedigree into a franchise.
The Curse of the Mogul: What’s Wrong With the World’s Leading Media Companies by Jonathan Knee, Bruce C. Greenwald and Ava Seave, featured in Carr’s column on Sept. 27, 2009:
According to the book, there is indeed a correlation between unrestrained growth and value — an inverse one. Often, the faster the top line grows, the worse the bottom line does, in part because media companies are too impatient to sensibly build from within and instead make acquisitions at prices that are determined as a multiple of ego, not revenue.
The Vice ethos is best captured by a book collecting the best of the magazine’s writing over the years called “News, Nudity & Nonsense.” But there is something bigger at work here, a hell-bent libertarianism and cultural literacy that brings to mind Playboy in its prime, when people came for the pictures, but stayed for the articles.
Charles Ergen, the chairman of Dish Network, was recently called the “most hated man in Hollywood” by The Hollywood Reporter because he dared to give consumers the ability to unbundle advertising and programming with a touch of a button using Hopper. It brings to mind the scene from Ken Auletta’s book “Googled,” when Mel Karmazin, then chief executive of Viacom, visited Google and saw a demonstration of the company’s ability to target ads. He declared that the company was, um, messing “with the magic.”
That’s because media companies have another word for those consumer inefficiencies: profits.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin, featured in Carr’s April 2013 column on how successful television shows are increasingly built on “lush portraits of human pathology”:
It has been a winning formula, but the execution risk is high. In “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution,” to be published in July by Penguin Press, the author, Brett Martin, suggests that the programming was produced by men who were as tortured and sometimes as despotic as the antiheroes they hung their plots on.
In his book, Mr. Martin suggests if you want to create original programming, you are going to have to deal with the idiosyncrasies of some very original characters. Artists, and that’s what they were, require a wide berth, even when tens of millions of dollars is at stake.
Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age by Susan Crawford, featured in Carr’s May 19, 2013 column:
Susan Crawford. . . offers a calm but chilling state-of-play on the information age in the United States. She is on a permanent campaign, speaking at schools, conferences and companies — she was at Google last week — and in front of Congress, asserting that the status quo has been great for providers but an expensive mess for everyone else.
Ms. Crawford argues that the airwaves, the cable systems and even access to the Internet have been overtaken by monopolists who resist innovation and chronically overcharge consumers. . . .
But don’t look for a jeremiad, either. A violist who plays in string quartets when she is not hammering telecom companies, Ms. Crawford is precise in her arguments and far from frantic in making them. The captains of industry who kidnapped telecoms and cable are not monsters, she says, merely shrewd capitalists who used leverage to maximize returns, no different or worse than the railroad or electricity barons of times past.
In Timothy Crouse’s seminal campaign book, “The Boys on the Bus,” the crusty political reporters settle on the story that they will tell the world at the end of the day.
For modern political reporters, the end of the day never arrives. There is no single narrative, only whatever is going on in the moment, often of little consequence, but always something that can be blogged, tweeted or filmed and turned into content.
At first glance, “The Last Magazine: A Novel” by Michael Hastings would appear to lack relevance in the current media age. A fictional account of life inside a failed magazine — Newsweek — in a dying industry — print — written by a now-dead journalist, the book seems very much beside the point. . . . But even from the grave Mr. Hastings has demonstrated anew an ability to reframe the debate. The novel, exhumed by his spouse after his death and published last week, reads as vivid archaeology that reveals much about the present moment. . . .
Amid the self-seeking people at the magazine — with many hands on a greasy pole of advancement composed of book sales, cable segments and cocktail chatter — the making of war is just one more career opportunity. . . . The milieu of the book paints a picture of a treehouse where like minds connive and look for an opening. But far below them, there is the sound of sawing — steady and implacable. The tree will fall. The insurgents — in media, in Iraq, in the world at large — are on the march and a privileged perch is no longer assured.
Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch, by Nick Davies, which Carr reviewed in the New York Times Book Review on Aug. 14, 2004:
“Hack Attack” is a very British book, to the good, I think. It teaches the reader a whole new lexicon of skulduggery. Politicians who fail to support the editorial line of the Murdoch newspapers are “monstered,” their personal lives taken apart with an amalgam of facts, lies and trumped-up scandal. The toolbox of the sleazy reporter includes “blagging,” “muppeting” and “double whacking.” Without getting bogged down in the tawdry details, all involved various degrees of false identities and impersonation. The cloak-and-dagger activities of the lawyers and journalists pursuing the Murdoch empire make for delicious reading, as when the attorneys routinely pull the batteries out of their phones when they meet to discuss strategy.
And don’t miss Carr’s September 2014 “By the Book” interview with New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, where he discusses his favorite novelist (Kurt Vonnegut), his favorite book about newspapers (Gay Talese’s “The Kingdom and the Power”), and his conviction that Ponyboy Curtis was “the coolest, saddest guy you could ever know.”
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