The Book that Changed Me

02 Nov
November 2, 2016

I was asked by the BBC to write and read an essay about a book that changed me — a request that offered an opportunity to bring more readers to one of the more epic and honorable acts of American journalism. Acquiring “Famous Men” was seminal for me as a twentysomething reporter, and provided both tactical and ethical ballast for the journeys in narrative non-fiction I would soon undertake in a homicide unit and on a drug corner. Have a listen and maybe pick up a copy of Agee & Walker’s masterpiece:

BBC Radio 3 | The Essay | The Book that Changed Me

David Simon describes how “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans changed his work as a journalist. The celebrated work capturing the lives of ordinary people during The Depression made him realise the importance of sharing “the simple, raw vulnerability” of lived experience. “Page after page was fully ripe with the delicate work of a thinking journalist who knows with all moral certitude that he is approaching and attempting to capture the love, fear and sadness of real lives.” Produced by Smita Patel.

14 replies
  1. Jeremy Hope says:

    I’ve had a copy of the book on the shelf waiting to be read since I heard you mention it elsewhere. If its anything like The Corner or Homicide then it will be a life-changer.

    Reply
  2. Molly Caldwell says:

    Funny, because my life-changing book is one of yours – The Corner. I can’t tell you how many times I have read it (I have a lending copy, and my own dog-eared, marked up copy) and I encourage everyone who has no clue about places like West Baltimore to read it.

    My one regret is that I forgot to bring that book (and my equally dog-eared copy of Homicide) with me when I met you! I can’t wait for your next book to come out.

    Reply
  3. Shaunartsmind says:

    Success & peacefulness to your 2017. It has been a while, David. We still have to meet for coffee. When you can, please let me know when you are free & in New York.

    Reply
  4. gimmyCliff says:

    I felt your humanity in The Wire, it truly changed me. I never thought of myself as a prejudiced person, I had Black friends, lovers. But it was while watching The Wire that it hit me, that by just being an American and living in this society I had been trained to think that some people were different because of the shade of their skin. I’m not a young person, so it was shocking even to me that I was still carrying that around. So somewhere in the middle of The Wire a little part of my brain matter brightened and I became aware of the brainwashing that was so deeply embedded in my thinking. It was my epiphany and I thank you for that.

    Reply
  5. Amy Goodwin says:

    This was really beautiful.
    It’s a strange thing living in Texas. Everybody you meet seems to have a Tennessee, Alabama or Mississippi connection. I guess that was the migratory pattern. They left the South and moved West, to Texas and Oklahoma.
    I recently went back to Aberdeen, Mississippi to do some genealogy work on my mother’s side, and I came across the book, The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash. He was a Southerner, and in 1941, he published a scathing analysis/criticism of the South. Anticipating a huge backlash, instead he received considerable acclaim and praise for his work. The country, in the midst of WWII, found solace in his words.

    And now you give us another book to read, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, also published in 1941, also written by a Southerner, Jim Agee from Tennessee. It is curious to me indeed. I feel like the writers of the South are beckoning us.

    A few days after the election, there was this clipTwitter of Meghan O’Rourke reading from Walt Whitman’s 1855 Fields of Grass, a book he wrote to try and unify a very divided country prior to the Civil War. He wrote,

    “This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

    I’m beginning to think these Southern writers have already said everything there is to say about our current circumstances, and we just need to sit in silence and read it.

    Reply
  6. Karim says:

    What else would you consider to be essential journalism? You’ve alluded to HL Mencken before, and it makes me wonder, in this day and age, what standards investigative journalism should aspire towards, apart from Agee.

    Reply
  7. Ellievet says:

    good stuff, Dave. (I dare to use the name because I’ve seen you say “mr Simon” is your dad or Paul. always great to hear your voice. it’s been a game changer in my life.

    Reply
  8. Sandeep Atwal says:

    Thanks you Mr. Simon, very much appreciated.

    Reply
  9. Dana King says:

    If I had to pick a single book that changed me, it would be THE CORNER. THE WIRE set me up for it, but I almost tripped over the pile of scales that fell from my eyes after reading THE CORNER.

    Reply
  10. Ben Merliss says:

    Great to have you back Mr. Simon. Thank you for sharing your story about this book.

    Reply
  11. Stephen says:

    I listened and immediately purchased a copy of the book. Thank-you.

    Reply
  12. Daithí says:

    Hearing you read this essay reminds of why I visit your website at all: because of how conversational the writing is. It could be transcribed and I’d probably hear it in me head similar to how it plays here. Listening to your experiences and hearing those extracts, however, only further reminds me of what attracted me to your work in the first place: because of the empathy felt for characters (especially in Treme, if I’m being honest). I look forward to reading this!

    Reply

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