Back when I was young(er) and a voracious reader of military history (What's the difference between youth and age? As as youngster I read military history as a grand adventure. Now older, and with sons of my own, I read it as a cautionary tale...) Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History" was the first and remains the best journalistic history of that war I've ever read.
Last year, at a book sale, I found a copy of Karnow's "Paris in the Fifties" which chronicles his time as a correspondent for Time magazine in post-war Paris. Again, it quickly became my favorite book on that wonderful city, and I've read a few.
Karnow, of course, died last week at the age of 87, and I'd say it was a life well-spent. This morning on the New Yorker website I was reading this most excellent piece by Evan Osnos on the art of "slow journalism" in which Karnow was mentioned and praised.
From the New Yorker
I once asked my friend Paul Salopek for some thoughts on a writing project. He was a logical source of expertise, having won a couple of Pulitzers for his work around the world, though in this case my interest was more specific to his skills. I was going to spend a few weeks on foot, walking through rural Sichuan Province, and Paul was something of an expert on hoofing it, having walked two hundred and thirty days down the Sierra Madre, and having traipsed large swathes of Africa, Afghanistan, and the Amazon, among other places.
“So, any tips?” I asked. He took the question seriously, and said finally, “If you’re going to take a mule, give yourself enough time to learn how to handle it. It’s more difficult than flying a plane.”
He set off a week or so ago from Herto Bouri, Ethiopia, bound, first, for the Red Sea. The Out of Eden Walk is being chronicled in real time—blogging, publishing, tweeting—and then, of course, there will be the longer pieces. But all the technical accommodations can make it easy to overlook that the essential project is something we don’t see much of anymore, a kind of reporting Paul calls “slow journalism”—the process of reporting at “a human pace of three miles an hour.”
The start of Paul’s journey just happened to overlap with a reason to nod to another great practitioner of snail-paced journalism: Stanley Karnow, the historian and journalist who wrote so meticulously about Vietnam and Philippines, died on Sunday at the age of eighty-seven. I never knew Karnow, but for a kid growing up in America, interested in writing about Asia, the world he evoked—in “Vietnam: A History,” and “In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines,” among other door-stop-sized volumes—was a good advertisement for the business. His friend Bernard Kalb, a former CBS reporter, once said that Karnow believed that “being a journalist is like being an adolescent all your life.” (Indeed, it wasn’t all heavy-lifting; Karnow’s book about his days of writing in Paris in the fifties made you resent your date of birth.)
There was another sentiment of Karnow’s that stayed with me: when covering Asia, he said, “you can be a specialist, but not an expert.” Humility, of one kind or another, is a quality we don’t universally celebrate in our business. For all of the effective skewering done by Stephen Colbert and The Onion, we still suffer from an industrial predisposition toward feigned, instant expertise. Something about Asia is especially attractive to charlatans. In Beijing, the joke among hacks is that, after the drive in from the airport, you are ready to write a column; after a month, you feel the stirrings of an idea-book; but after a year, you struggle to write anything at all, because you’ve finally discovered just how much you don’t know.
In a sea of ephemera, the sturdiest work is only more noticeable. My colleague Katherine Boo won the National Book Award last year for “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” her chronicle of a Mumbai slum, which was based on three years of laborious interviews and documents. We binge on instant knowledge, but we are learning the hazards, and readers are warier than they used to be of nanosecond-interpretations of Supreme Court decisions. The economics of the business have not suddenly improved, but in the midst of all the opining with authority and speed, it’s nice to be reminded that the alternative doesn’t make you a luddite.
Journalism offers far fewer chances these days to roam the globe for a paycheck. But adventurers like Karnow and Salopek should give some solace to the aspiring vagabonds out there who wonder if foreign correspondence isn’t still one hell of a way of life. Somewhere in Ethiopia this week, Paul thumbed out a tweet: “No wells. Bummed murky water off nomads in this enormity. Electric blue moonlight the color of pure thought.”
Slow food. Slow living. Slow journalism. I'm starting to notice a pattern here...