Matthew Goodman

Matthew Goodman writes:

“My books Eighty Days and The Sun and the Moon are both examples of narrative history — that is to say, works of history that use techniques most commonly associated with fiction to bring the past vividly to life. These are five books — three nonfiction and two fiction — that, as a writer, I find endlessly inspiring, interesting, and instructive, and to which I return again and again.”

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
By James Agee

“In 1936, Fortune magazine sent the young writer James Agee down to Alabama to write an article about sharecropping. Perhaps not surprisingly (given that Agee once described himself as “a communist by conviction”), Fortune ended up rejecting the article that he submitted; but fortunately for the rest of us, what emerged instead was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A truly sui generis work, Agee’s description of three sharecropper families ultimately turns into a kind of meditation on the sacredness of human existence. It’s almost impossible to overstate the level of passion, fury, and love that Agee brought to his subject, nor the sheer beauty of his writing.”

Slouching towards Bethlehem
By Joan Didion

“Is there any writer whose work is more penetrating of American society than Joan Didion, or provides such a tonic corrective to the tendency to boosterism? In her first collection of reportorial essays, Slouching towards Bethlehem, Didion cast her gimlet eye on the excesses and false promises of 1960s America, especially the “golden dream” of southern California; but she’s at least as insightful about her own experience, as in her valedictory essay about living in New York as a young woman, ‘Goodbye to All That.’ Didion’s writing is as dry and fizzy and gleaming as the best champagne, and as exhilarating.”

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
By Robert Caro

“Though never elected to public office, for nearly half a century Robert Moses was the most powerful man in the city of New York, the man who, more than any other, shaped the modern city. Part social history, part Shakespearean tragedy, The Power Broker traces how Moses turned away from his youthful ideals to become a man obsessed with accumulating personal power. Robert Caro’s scholarship is impeccable, the sort to which all historians should aspire. Through the accretion of countless details the reader comes to understand how Moses’s decisions led to the destruction of previously vital neighborhoods. Born and raised in New York, I looked at the city with new eyes after reading this book.”

By E. L. Doctorow

“What I most admire about this novel is not (or perhaps more accurately, not only) how E. L. Doctorow has merged the historical and the fantastic, how he populates a fictional story of New York in the early years of the twentieth century with real-life characters such as Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, and Emma Goldman. As a writer, I’m in awe of the powerful irony Doctorow created with his chosen writing style, by putting large social observations into short declarative sentences. And the sly humor as well, as in this aside: ‘And though the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.’ “

The Pushcart War
By Jean Merrill

“Set in the far-off year of 1986, Jean Merrill’s novel for young readers describes the war between pushcarts and trucks for control of the streets of New York; along the way she creates such unforgettable characters as Maxie Hammerman, the leader of the pushcart peddlers; movie star Wanda Gambling; and Mayor Emmet P. Cudd, who in his famous ‘Peanut Butter Speech’ declaimed that as his opponent was against trucks he was also against progress, and if he was against progress he might even be against peanut butter. This book manages to be at once uproariously funny and deeply wise about life in big cities. When I was in sixth grade I loved this book so much that my teacher suggested I adapt it into a play, which my class performed for the entire school; it remains to this day the most unalloyed pleasure I have ever gotten from a piece of writing.”