January Book Club Recap

Alfred Cheney Johnston

Ida Tarbell, as shown in the frontispiece of All in the Day's Work

For January the News Nerd Book Club read Ida Tarbell's autobiography, All in the Day's Work.

Tarbell details her growth from a child in the oil-rich lands of 1850s western Pennsylvania to the muckraker known for her investigations of Standard Oil. Her words take us to Poland Seminary of Poland, Ohio; The Chautauquan in Chautauqua, New York; the streets of 1890s Paris where she researched Madame Roland and wrote for McClure's Magazine. She wrote a series on Bonaparte, then one on Abraham Lincoln, then another on Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller.

Some of what we discussed:

  • Is true objectivity possible in journalism? Tarbell grew up affected by the oil industry, and targeted its illegal practices, but didn't align herself with the muckrackers of the era and tried to find a balance between different sides of the story.
  • The French citizens Tarbell encountered weren't concerned with life outside the borders of France. Are there are modern parallels?
  • Expatriate writers were in such demand that Tarbell funded her time in Paris with articles for American publishers. Are Americans today actually interested in other countries' events beyond just the story of the moment?
  • Her dedication to her work amazed us. She was truant in grade school until she discovered that schoolwork was a puzzle to be solved.
  • Are all journalists driven by an intense curiosity from childhood? Tarbell's story is but one example. If you interviewed every investigative journalist, would you find that the topics of their investigations were related to their childhood experiences?
  • Tarbell's greatest stories were serialized over months or years in magazines. Is Serial a sign that this format of publishing will return?

Next month!

Our book club hangout next month will be Wednesday, February 11, at 1 p.m. Eastern time.

Help us select the book for February's hangout by filling out this quick survey.

The three titles under consideration are:

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

The Design of Everyday Things is even more relevant today than it was when first published.
– Tim Brown, CEO, IDEO

Responsive Web Design, second edition by Ethan Marcotte

Day by day, the number of devices, platforms, and browsers that need to work with your site grows. Ethan’s straightforward approach to designing for this complexity represents a fundamental shift in how we’ll build websites for the decade to come.
– Jeffrey Veen, CEO and cofounder of Typekit, VP of Products at Adobe

In the Beginning... Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

In the Beginning was the Command Line is now badly obsolete and probably needs a thorough revision. For the last couple of years I have been a Mac OS X user almost exclusively.
– Neal Stephenson, in a 2003 post on his website and a 2004 Slashdot interview

You can also add suggestions to our book club reading list or tweet them to us @newsnerdbooks.


Ida Tarbell on pie:

Of the Monthly I have more distinct recollections. It was in these that I first began to read freely. Many a private picnic did I have with the Monthly under the thorn bushes on the hillside above Oil Creek, a lunch basket at my side. There are still in the family storeroom copies of Harper's Monthly stained with lemon pie dropped when I was too deep into a story to be careful.