Within the first few pages of this anthology, Ira Glass makes a broad claim: "As far as I'm concerned," he writes, "we're living in an age of great nonfiction writing… Giants walk among us." He ought to know. In his capacity as the host of This American Life, he has curated his share of first-class journalism, and on the evidence of these selections, he's probably right. But this is not an anthology of stuff from This American Life. Many of these authors have contributed to that show, and excerpts from a few of these pieces have been read on it, but only a few. What Glass offers us here is a highly personal and eclectic series of articles, articles that he's photocopied or torn out and then tossed onto a (perhaps notional) stack behind his desk. These are the pieces he turns to when he needs to inspire himself, or others. There is no single theme, no single style; the only thing these fifteen selections have in common is how extraordinary they are. What makes them so, as Glass acknowledges, is not so much the facts of each story as what the author makes of them, and the meaning the writer seems to uncover in the course of his reporting.
Take "Toxic Dreams" by Jack Hitt. This piece is about the epic, unbelievably complicated litigation against a toxic-waste dump known as the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside County, California. ("Modern life rarely shunts nouns together with such Dickensian economy," Hitt observes.) In 1955, the county's Board of Trade decided to create a dumping site in order to entice manufacturers to move into the county. "They approached J.B. Stringfellow, a high-school dropout who operated a granite quarry a mile or so outside the little town of Glen Avon," Hitt writes. "The county's proposal was to dump chemicals into the large stone cavities left by Stringfellow's excavations. The scientific thinking they adopted was: she'll hold." Needless to say, she didn't. Hitt continues:
"Between September 1956 and November 1972, the quarry took in thirty-four million gallons of chemicals -- hundreds of different chemicals -- from about a hundred companies. In 1972, Mr. Stringfellow, fearing that the pits were leaking, agreed to shut the dump down. The huge uncovered lagoons languished, unprotected by even a fence. In March 1978, the rainy season in southern California was worse than usual. With each downpour, the acid pits rose."
Well, you can see where this is going. Before long there were rivers of toxic goo running in the streets. In April 1985, the inevitable lawsuit was filed: about four thousand plaintiffs, versus Stringfellow himself, more than a hundred companies, and the state of California.
On the surface, it looks like another straightforward narrative about greedy polluters and the community they have victimized, and Hitt initially goes in looking for that story. But once he begins to investigate the situation, things get really murky really quickly. Soon, just one thing becomes clear: there is nothing straightforward about this story, and nothing clear at all about the meaning and purpose of the litigation. With each new fact it looks more like a vast, intricate boondoggle, conducted by the litigants, the attorneys, and the court, each for their own reasons.
It is a weird story and alone worth the price of the book. But I've chosen to discuss it only because it's my personal favorite: in fact, any of these stories is worth the price of the book, and you get fifteen of them. Whether it is Malcolm Gladwell working out how everybody meets the people they meet, or Chuck Klosterman following Val Kilmer around and writing down the nutty things he says, or Bill Buford getting caught in the midst of a berserk riot - which incidentally transforms his piece from a humorous fish-out-of-water travelogue into an unforgettable probe into the nature of mob violence, which he observes with awe and terror - no matter what is going on, it's always entertaining.
Which is kind of the point. Some years ago, This American Life ran a segment by Sarah Vowell about the difficulty of making a good mix tape. I kept thinking of that segment as I read this book, because the experience was a lot like listening to a good mix of somebody else's favorite songs. In this case, it's Ira Glass's Greatest Hits of Narrative Nonfiction, always surprising and interesting from one moment to the next. As with any great mix, it's got at least one thing for everybody, and I hope you'll give it a spin.