We welcomed journalist and former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger to the library to share six books to have sharpened his thinking and shaped his own writing.
Alan's career started in local journalism, at the Cambridge Evening News. From there he joined the Guardian in 1979, becoming editor-in-chief in 1995 — a time which coincided with the rise of the digital age, and which saw a significant change in the way the Guardian was consumed by its readers (as he chronicled in his book, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now).
As editor of the Guardian, he succesfully defended a libel claim from former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken, led the exposé of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and broke the story of former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden, turned whistleblower — leading to changes in the law and numerous debates in the US Congress, the UK parliament, and legislatures around the world.
Over the course of the evening Alan talked us through six books which, as he neatly put, "begin with journalism, end up with music, and go through law". Alongside fascinating detail drawn from his time leading the Guardian, we learned that Alan prefers not to read fiction, and that reading the news at 3 o’clock in the morning helps him to get back to sleep.
His book recommendations can be found below.
Hack Attack by Nick Davies
Alan began with a book by investigative journalist, and old friend of his, Nick Davies. Hack Attack describes the infamous phone hacking scandal in 2014, a story covered by the Guardian and which culminated in the closure of News of the World. Alan described Nick as a "fabulous writer", praising in particular his excellent reporting techniques. "Even in his sixties he loved standing on doorsteps", Alan explained, "You have about a minute from them opening the door to them slamming the door. He would work out the one line ne needed in order to convince them it was worthwhile."
Make No Law by Anthony Lewis
During his twenty years as editor Alan spent a lot of time in court, consequently becoming very interested in libel law. His next book recommendation, Make No Law by Anthony Lewis, outlines a 1963 case in which an Alabama police chief named Sullivan sued the New York Times for defamation over an advert which had been placed. The Supreme Court judge put his weight behind the First Amendment, "make no law that will abridge freedom of speech". This was a case which redefined libel law and had a long lasting impact; and as Alan put it "You can trace a direct line from this book, to the relative freedom that journalists have today to write."
The First Freedom by Robert Hargreaves
Alan became very interested in the question ‘why do we [journalists] have the freedoms we have?’ His next choice, The First Freedom, is an inspiring story of those who risked everything for the right to tell the truth. He highlighted the significance of these individuals, explaining that, "You have to be conscious of history, and the debt you owe to the people who came before you. Each generation has to refight these battles."
Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky
The period Alan was editor, 1995 - 2015, "almost exactly coincided with the birth of the internet, and having to rethink what a physical paper was". A profound change in communications which resulted in a necessary change in format for the Guardian business model. Alan explained the need to search around for people who had a better understanding of this world, and introduced us to his next book Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, who "would occasionally write one big blockbuster essay about all this stuff, and everything would come to a halt because people had to write the latest pronouncement from Clay Shirky".
Collected Essays Journalism Letters of George Orwell
"If you ever wanted to teach one of your colleagues how to write copy, just give them a book of Orwell essays", Alan advised. He began reading Orwell when he was 14 years old, and is still full of praise for his "plain, wide-ranging, contemporary and powerful" writing. He pulled out one specific essay, ‘England, Your England’, pointing out its resonance with contemporary politics:
'It resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control’ — England, Your England, George Orwell.
The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross
Alan’s final book The Rest is Noise offers "A history of the twentieth century through music" by music critic for the New Yorker, Alex Ross. A keen musician (and one who embarked on, and wrote about, a significant personal musical feat), Alan sought a deeper understanding of classical music, and this "Really helped me get there" he said. The Rest is Noise is an insight into classical music against a backdrop of significant historical events, including the First and Second World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Cold War… and "suddenly you see the twentieth century, and start hearing it, and understanding that it was impossible to write tuneful, elegant music when the world was in flames".
All of Alan’s chosen books are now available in the library for loan, alongside Alan's own. Thanks to Sam Bush for his photographs.