Immersion Journalism at Its Best

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Ted Conover really knows how to craft a journalistic narrative that draws the reader in and doesn’t let them go until the very last page. He takes facts and details and conversations and experiences and turns them into a story that readers can relate to, even if you’ve never been to Sing Sing (where he worked as a corrections officer) or China (one of the roads he focused on in his latest book, Routes of Man). Even after I’ve returned one of his books to my shelf–the top one, where it snuggles against the Tim O’Briens and the Haruki Murakamis–the broader themes that he tackles stay with me.

In his first book, Rolling Nowhere, Ted stole aboard freight trains and road the rails, learning the ropes and getting to know the hobos who called that life their own. He embraced adventure and turned what could have been awkward social encounters into opportunities to learn about a little-explored phenomenon. Now, married and the author of four additional books, Ted has finally returned to the rails. And this time, he brought along his son. I highly recommend reading his latest article, “My Train-Hopping Odyssey Through the American West,” in which he introduces his son Asa to life on the rails and struggles with the twin desires to let Asa get a taste of adventure and to protect him from what is, admittedly, a somewhat dangerous outing.

I’ve learnt a lot from reading Ted’s books, but nothing beats the experience of having had him as a professor (I don’t even want to think about how long ago that was) when I took a “journalism of empathy” class back in college at NYU. The point was to completely immerse ourselves in a subject (in my case, a crazy gamer who practically lived at Games Workshop) and then write about. It took patience. And courage, a willingness to give yourself up to an experience. Meeting new people and thrusting myself into unfamiliar situations didn’t come easy for me.

With the wrong professor, the class could have easily been like most of my other courses (not including my “Reporting Downtown” class with Betty Ming Liu, which was equally inspiring and also taught me a lot): a halfhearted interview with a “man on the street” or a story that relied on quotes from friends because it was raining and no one wanted to tramp around in the East Village with a soggy notebook to find interview subjects. But with his unassuming attitude and easy smile, Ted inspired a kind of passion in me, a desire to actually delve deep and do some real journalism. Part of it was his attitude, but part of it was his example. And his latest article is one of his best examples yet.

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