Friday, July 28, 2017

Book Review: The Beholder's Eye

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The Beholder's Eye

Author/editor: Walt Harrington

Author's web site:

Date: 2005

Publisher: Grove / Atlantic

ISBN: not printed in my copy

Length: 253 pages

Quote: “This is a book of stories by journalists writing about themselves.”

That is, writing “personal journalism” in which their research about the primary topic is part of the story. Thus J.R. Moehringer writes about interviewing an old man who claimed to be a famous boxer, thinking the famous boxer had changed a lot over the years, and finding out that the man talking to him had actually been a boxer, but...and that's what the story really has to teach us: what the reporter learned from the boxers' use of stage names.

“America's finest personal journalism,” as the subtitle claims, is hardly a suitable subtitle for a book that features a long story about the editor's family; Harrington presents his family well, but, even if there weren't a rule against including your own best in "America's finest," is a family story journalism? Nevertheless, this collection of twelve reportedly true stories contains eleven good ones. Pete Earley researches the short life of his long-deceased sister. Gretel Ehrlich goes to Greenland and hunts with the Eskimos. Stephen Hall volunteers for repeated MRI scans to map which parts of his brain are most active as he thinks about different things. Mary Kay Blakely observes the quirky married life of autistic author Donna Williams, with house rules like “We don't talk while we eat.” Davis Miller talks to Muhammad Ali; Ron Rosenbaum talks to Mario Cuomo; Mike Sager tracks down Marlon Brando and decides, after playing a sort of hide-and-seek with the retired star, to leave him alone. Scott Anderson takes us to a war zone. Bill Plaschke takes us to meet one of those strange creatures that were just beginning to be described in 2005: a blogger; like many early adopters of Internet technology, the blogger he introduces to us has a major disability.

Gross-out champion Harry Crews observes dogfights and the people who enter their dogs in those. If you're not up for a gross-out many times more intense than the insect and reptile stories with which this web site challenges readers, skip pages 57 to 68 of The Beholder's Eye.

“A Family Portrait in Black and White” is bloggy. It'd be a good blog post. It's not journalism.Good writing doesn't have to be journalistic, of course...unless it's being marketed not only as journalism but as exemplary of journalism. Inter-whatever-marriage is no longer all that unusual or interesting, I say, somewhat arbitrarily, even though Harrington's account of his family does make a point my husband and I used to make every time someone commented on our unmatched skin tones: some of your ancestors probably married across battle lines too. Beyond that, what characters in books look like is interesting as a bit of background to the story of what they do...but in this book we don't get any of the story of what the Harringtons have done. I suspect Harrington of saving that for a future volume.

So, final verdict? If you like blogs and web sites but really prefer the posts where the bloggers get out and learn something, and teach us something, beyond their own office rooms...that's what The Beholder's Eye is. Ten of the perfect plums from ten journalists' collections, a long but enjoyable family story, and one gross-out. You're reading a blog; if that's because you're a blog reader, you will like The Beholder's Eye. If you don't already have a copy, you owe one to yourself.

You can buy this book directly from Amazon, using the link above, which is mine, or the one at his web site, which is Harrington's; either of those links will add a few pennies to either Harrington's or my Amazon savings account. Or you can support this web site by buying it here, for the usual price of $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. (At least one and probably three more books of similar size would fit in one $5 package.) From this $10 ($10 is also what this web site has left after Paypal takes its bite) we'll send $1 to Harrington or a charity of his choice. 

At his web site you'll see other collections of "personal journalism," by Harrington and other writers. The older books can be added to a $5 package, along with The Beholder's Eye, as Fair Trade Books and Harrington or his charity will receive $1 for each of them too. This web site recommends buying the newer books, which are still on the shelves in stores, as new books since that's even more encouraging to writers than buying their older work as Fair Trade Books.