I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
My reading tends to sort itself into two categories these days: the underliners and the dippers. The underliners are the books I'm reading for review or work. I read them straight through, intro to index, and usually leave them scrawled and marked and otherwise punished. The dippers form a sloppy pile by my bed. The general rule with dippers is they don't require a bookmark -- just open it up somewhere or other and start reading. The writing will pay off immediately.
So: Underliners first. The best of the recent lot is Michael Novacek's Terra: Our 100-million-year-old ecosystem -- and the threats that now put it at risk. Novacek is a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and he writes about the history of the Earth like Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks about space. Well, okay, maybe not quite as breezy as Tyson -- Novacek bulks up Terra with 65 pages of endnotes -- but this is fantastic scientific history, written with an overriding purpose. To wit: Novacek lays out what we know about the planet's previous five great extinctions, and draws lessons for the sixth, which is the stewpot we currently find ourselves in.
My second underliner is an old favorite that I'm working my way through again: Human Impact on Ancient Environments, by Charles L. Redman. I read it years ago when doing the research for Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, and I'm loving it even more the second time. Redman, an anthropologist at Arizona State U., looks at the ways in which humans have changed the environment around them, from the cave dwellers to us. He argues that basically there is no such thing as an absolutely pure natural environment -- humans have always affected the world around us. It's like reading the beta version of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse), and satisfies that Diamond jones for those of us pining for his next book.
The Dippers: I'm really into the outlaw journalism of Richard Stratton, whose work was collected in a Nation Books volume a few years ago called Altered States of America. "Outlaw journalist" isn't a wannabe title for Stratton. The guy did hard time (8 years) in federal prison for pot smuggling, and upon his release he kept working the underside for terrific journalistic material. The pieces collected here, done for High Times, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Prison Life, range from features on Oliver Stone to the CIA's 50s-era LSD experiments to a profile of a prison guard named Bonecrusher. Reading Stratton is like taking a scary-ass tour of the underworld with a professional guide.
I'm also loving Mimi Sheraton's memoir, Eating My Words. Sheraton, a former restaurant critic for the New York Times, chronicles her own rise to the top of NYC's restaurant world, including overcoming bullshit "women can't be critics" attitudes at the gray lady. Half the pleasure of Sheraton's memoir is her sneaky portraits of the Times powers-that-were, including Abe Rosenthal, who wielded his Exec Editor title like a cudgel to get the best tables in the hottest joints.
Guiltiest pleasure for last: The Devil's Guide to Hollywood, by Joe f'in Eszterhas. Oh. My. God. Let's take a minute to review Eszterhas' screen credits. Basic Instinct. Showgirls. Jagged Edge. Flashdance. Betrayed. Music Box. F.I.S.T. Got it? No? No problem, because if you forget any of those titles, Eszterhas will remind you. On every third goddamn page. Devil's Guide is an astonishing book, maybe the longest, most entertaining Fuck Off memo ever written. Eszterhas doesn't so much guide us through the world of Hollywood and screenwriting as take paragraph-long potshots at everyone who's ever done him wrong. Which, as far as I can tell, includes just about anyone ever connected to the motion picture industry, right down to the caterers. What Devil's Guide never is, is boring. The guy's full of vitriol, but it's funny vitriol. And frankly, I gotta love a writer who's willing to stick up for his work and demand top dollar. You're great, Joe. Thanks for raising the market for all the rest of us. Please don't put me on your enemies list.
Read an excerpt from The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.
Barcott is also the author of The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier and is a contributing editor at Outside magazine. His feature articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Sports Illustrated, Harper’s, Utne Reader, and other publications. He contributes reviews to the New York Times Book Review and the public radio show Living on Earth, and is a former Ted Scripps Fellow at the University of Colorado.