Thomas Kennerly Wolfe Jr. (1930 – 2018) was an American writer. He was one of the pioneers of ‘new journalism’ which used a range of literary techniques from fiction to make nonfiction more personal. In The Right Stuff, Wolfe wrote about the space race against the Soviet Union from the point of view of the American astronauts and their families. In 1987, he published his first and best-known novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a satire of 1980s New York which was later turned into a movie with Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith.
Before he died, in 2010, we asked Tom Wolfe if he would do a Five Books interview with us on American journalism, to which he replied:
“You compliment me by your very invitation! But I can’t take on any interviews—not even short ones, because I wind up being the one who talks and talks . . . and talks and talks—until I complete the book I’m working on.
Incidentally, the best work on contemporary journalism I know of is a passage in one of Marshall McLuhan’s books of the late 1960s in which he said—don’t try to follow the logic, if any, just note the accuracy of the prediction—that television had altered the “sensory balance” of the young and turned them “tribal” (as I said, don’t try . . . don’t try). If you hand a tribesman some sort of news in printed form, he will assume it’s a trick. He will only believe what people tell him; i.e., rumors. And there you have it: the blogosphere.”
Books by Tom Wolfe
“This book takes you from the breaking of the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager up to the start of the Apollo programme. It’s before all of the stuff that people would say is the heyday of NASA, like the moon landings and so on. It’s everything that happened before.” Read more...
The Best Physics Books for Teenagers
Kate Lee, Teacher
“Wolfe is one of the greatest journalists of the second half of the 20th century – possibly the greatest – and in Radical Chic we find him at the very top of his game. He notices absolutely everything and takes you right into the scene he’s describing. But he’s not just a reporter without parallel. He also has a novelist’s ability to enter into the heads of those present, recording their thoughts as if he can see into their minds. This style of writing – combining reportage and social realism with a novelist’s imagination – became known as “New Journalism”. Wolfe edited a very good anthology of that name that includes pieces by all of the genre’s most celebrated practitioners, including Gay Talese. But Wolfe was its leading light, and Radical Chic its most shining example.” Read more...
Toby Young, Journalist
“Everybody with an interest in sex, soul and higher education should read I Am Charlotte Simmons. Those are the great themes of the book…Charlotte grows up in Sparta, Georgia, I believe, on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She comes from red America and she’s a prodigy of red America – she’s the best student that her community has seen in living memory. She wins a scholarship to Dupont College and she’s sent off with great fanfare. What Wolfe explores is what happens when a prodigiously intellectually talented young woman, raised with a conservative sensibility, is parachuted and dropped into a representative, elite institution of higher education. What happens to her beliefs, what happens to her convictions, what happens to her cultural conservatism?” Read more...
The best books on Liberty and Morality
Peter Berkowitz, Political Scientist
“When The Bonfire of the Vanities came out in 1986 it captured New York life, and in particular the criminal justice system, like nothing else. I was jealous. I was living this life but Tom Wolfe wrote it. How was a non-cop able to capture this? He captured the nuances of the criminal justice system, and especially the issue of race. His treatment of the criminal justice system in the county of the Bronx is hilarious and deeply troubling. Cops certainly could relate to the prisoners in the Bronx jail who knew more about the sections of the penal law than all of the prosecutors and defence lawyers combined. The inmates were quite comfortable reciting the numerical chapter of the penal code as opposed to the English title of such code. And so we find one inmate proudly proclaiming that he is in for ‘160.15’ (which is armed robbery) as opposed to his less manly inmate who is only in for ‘140.10’ (a second degree burglary.)” Read more...
John Timoney, Policemen
“It’s about 1960s America: cars, kids, pop culture. Wolfe was one of the inventors of the New Journalism. We don’t need to write fiction! We can write journalism in the first person with incredible observation! This is not a novel but to call it journalism makes it sound slight. It isn’t. This is a masterpiece of the New Journalism.” Read more...
Stephen Bayley, Art Historians, Critics & Curator
“When this was first published, news writing was written in a very strict, often quite staid style. New Journalism used a range of literary techniques commonplace in fiction, for example the use of dialogue or first-hand narrative. At that time they were virtually unheard of in news writing. They were writers like Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote… Tom Wolfe wrote an essay laying out this new type of writing at the beginning of his anthology, and the writing he included in the book embodied the style of the movement.” Read more...
The best books on Investigative Journalism
Nick Davies, Journalist
Interviews where books by Tom Wolfe were recommended
The best books on Investigative Journalism, recommended by Nick Davies
The investigative journalist says when he started out reporting PR copy was a real rarity. If you were writing about crime, you’d call the police station and speak to an officer.
The best books on Pop Modern, recommended by Stephen Bayley
The British design guru on which book to buy if you want to know how to design a racing car in the 1960s style, American pop culture, modern architecture, and how “Liverpool in the 1960s was like Florence in the 1440s”
The best books on Policing, recommended by John Timoney
The youngest four-star chief in the history of the NYPD, and a Medal of Valor laureate, chooses books that address the topic of policing from many angles – from the practical to the poetic
The best books on Liberty and Morality, recommended by Peter Berkowitz
The Hoover Institution scholar explores five books that he believes teach us something about how we are “failing to understand, appreciate and defend our liberty”
The best books on Journalism, recommended by Toby Young
The journalist and author praises tabloid hacks, lambasts Johann Hari, picks a bone with Christopher Hitchens, and selects five books that exemplify good reporting – or satirise it mercilessly
The Best Physics Books for Teenagers, recommended by Kate Lee
What are the best books for getting a teenager into physics? Kate Lee, a physics teacher at St Paul’s Girls School, recommends books about NASA, space travel, and the Big Bang—and puzzles the question of why it is so hard for young women to stay in physics as a profession.