Tracy Kidder Reading List
Tracy Kidder is one of the best nonfiction writers working today. When I read a book by Kidder I almost forget he’s there, as if I’m experiencing the story firsthand. I came across this quote by Kidder that may explain that feeling: “In fiction, believability may have nothing to do with reality or even plausibility. It has everything to do with those things in nonfiction. I think that the nonfiction writer’s fundamental job is to make what is true believable.”
That’s what Kidder does; he makes the stories he is writing utterly believable. It’s no accident that he counts George Orwell as one of his influences – Orwell was also a writer with enormous integrity, whose commitment to telling the whole story was absolute.
Kidder’s breakout book was 1981’s The Soul of a New Machine, which has my nomination as one of the best book titles ever.
In “Soul,” Kidder set out to do what another of his heroes, John McPhee, does so well – explain a deeply complicated subject in terms a willing reader will understand. Our lives are so complex now, so driven by technologies and fields of knowledge we can barely comprehend, it’s deeply satisfying to find someone who can interpret those forces for us.
“Soul” did that by telling the story of the creation of a new super-computer. This was back in the day before a personal computer and a smartphone were necessary tools for living. Computers lived in universities, government institutions and engineering firms.
Kidder followed a group of engineers who worked for two years on this project, and he told their stories along with the story of the computer. They were men working under incredible pressure to achieve something remarkable. This book marked the beginning of an era where the power of the computer came to dominate our lives. It won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Still well worth a read.
The next Kidder book on my list goes from something a very few people will ever experience to something more universal – the building of a house. His book House followed the construction of a house in Massachusetts – the homeowners’ dreams, the architect’s design, the builder’s execution.
Anyone who has ever experienced this process knows that a lot is riding on the outcome – for many people, building a house is the most important physical project they will ever complete. Kidder does a great job of following the process as it gets down to the wire, as dreams confront the realities of budget and practical matters. Along the way the reader learns about architecture, building techniques and the rituals that turn a house into a home. The story reads like good fiction – Kidder gets under the skin of each character and shows what really makes them run.
One of Kidder’s best-known books is Mountains Beyond Mountains, his superb biography of the humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer. This book, a tour de force, tells the story of Farmer’s strange life – a man who divided his time between Harvard, one of the epicenters of American cultural and intellectual life, and Haiti, one of the most deprived places on earth.
After Farmer graduated from college with a degree in anthropology, he visited Haiti, and it changed his life. The conditions he encountered were so horrific, he decided that he would make changing them his life’s work. He went to Harvard and got a combined advanced degree in anthropology and medicine.
He returned to Haiti again and again, and Kidder followed him – working as a doctor in the field, raising money to keep his projects going (Farmer got a MacArthur genius grant and immediately donated the money to his organization in Haiti). Kidder’s portrait of a totally dedicated man – driven, prickly, courageous – is honest and unforgettable.
Kidder met the subject of his next book while he was researching Mountains Beyond Mountains. The magnificent Strength in What Remains. It is the true story of Deo, a refugee from the genocidal conflict in Rwanda and Burundi that pitted the Tutsis and the Hutus against each other. (A Tutsi, Deo’s name is short for degratias, which means thanks be to God in Latin).
Deo, a third-year medical student in Burundi, was in fear of his life (his family had already been massacred). He flew out of the country with $200 from a friend in his pocket, no working knowledge of English and no contacts in the new world where he landed – New York City. It’s an incredible story, of a penniless refugee who spent his early days sleeping in Central Park, became a medical student at Columbia University and returned to Burundi to both revisit the scene of the slaughter and help the country recover. The story of how this young man endures the worst that the world can dish out, comes to terms with it and has the courage to return to the scene of his greatest anguish is one of the best books I have ever read.
Finally, a Tracy Kidder book I have not read but intend to is his recent book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Kidder wrote this book with Richard Todd, an editor he worked with for many years.
This is an inside look at how Kidder does his work (each book goes through an average of 10 drafts), but it’s also the story of how an editor and a writer can work together to create outstanding books. It’s an instruction guide to narrative, memoir, essays, dealing with facts, style, and other subjects, but it’s also the story of a friendship.