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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is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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