“Density” he said, and died

David Halberstam

Strange how a voice can simultaneously inspire and haunt you.

As I go through the comments by my editor (at Riverhead, not The Economist) and write a new draft of my manuscript, I am constantly hearing the deep, deep voice of David Halberstam in my head, a voice, as our (The Economist’s) Obituary put it,

as sonorous as gravel shifting underground.

Halberstam was one of the great journalists of our time. He wrote for the New York Times, but perhaps is best known now for his books, above all The Best and the Brightest, about how a room full of smart people got us into a dumb war. His coverage of civil rights, but especially of the Vietnam War, influenced history.

I met Halberstam on April 21st, 2007. It was a Saturday night. Orville Schell, one of my mentors and the dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism at the time (where he had invited me to teach), had brought Halberstam to talk to the school. Orville had also booked a table at Chez Panisse for a small group after the talk–he was looking for me in the room to bring me along but I was nowhere to be found (I don’t remember why not), which is one of my great regrets to this day.

Anyway, Halberstam was talking to us about writing and journalism that night. He had that habit that many journalists do, of answering questions with questions. We are inquirers more than opiners.

I was already thinking about writing a book, so naturally I was interested in how he paired journalism and book writing. I wanted to know about his research and writing process, about his approach.

You know your book is getting really good, you know you’re close to finished, Halberstam said at one point, when

you find yourself leaving good stuff on the cutting floor.

Doing so meant that you’ve been putting in so much research and detail and color and anecdote that the book wants to burst. He loved that quality of good writing, which he called


That is probably one reason why, all this week, I am hearing his voice say the word density every time I cut good stuff to make my manuscript, well, denser.

But the other reason is that this was Halberstam’s last Saturday night. The following Monday I got an email from Orville announcing that Halberstam, who had survived the jungles of war-torn Vietnam, had died in a car crash on a boring intersection in Silicon Valley, as he was being driven by one of the Journalism School’s students to an interview for the book he was then working on. Just like that.

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34 thoughts on ““Density” he said, and died

  1. Thanks for this post. The Best and the Brightest should be required reading for anyone in government and business.

    Speaking of which, Andreas, when you finish with Hannibal, you should consider a bio of George Ball. We could use a few more people like him.

    • George Ball is a New Zealand road surface scientist. Every 5-year-old knows that. What’s the matter with you???

      Speaking of icons, today would be Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday. (Elvis Presley, in case you don’t know, was an American singer. He also appeared in a few movies.)

      Anyway, regarding Mr. George Ball, I confess to (probably) scandalous use of Wikipedia. It says there that Wes Craven has expressed interest in directing a movie about the man. About the project, it cryptically says, “No further information is known, and it is likely production will begin mid 2008.” So the movie may be out in late 2009. Can’t wait.

      Prior to tackling your book about Mr. Ball, could please update his Wikipedia entry?

      Thank you.

    • You got me there. No eminient subbituminologist comes to mind off the top of my head. Shame on me.

      By the way, according to the Wikipedia article, Dr. Ball is happily married to his wife Vivian Ball.

      Down under, they’re actually married to their wifes.

    • dang it, i can’t do italics?!
      you could certainly inflate the wiki entry by including the words, “no longer a bachelor since his marriage to Vivian (insert maiden name here) in 1977 (insert correct date) Dr. Ball is happily married these last three decades to his wife Vivian Ball”.

    • Dang it, I guess you’ll have to keep posting in upright germanics then.

      “George Ball, a male ex-bachelor currently married to his wife, had just opened a jar of kiwi jam when a FedEx truck pulled up in front of his house…”

      Now that’s journalism, Mr. Kinsley!

    • How about “George Ball, that strutting peacock of road engineers . . .”

      I just got around to checking out his Wikipedia entry. Did you notice that ” Throughout his life, Dr. Ball has maintained strong moral values and this has been shown through his terrific research and excellent family life.”

      Plus he taught himself to play cricket from a book.

      I’m beginning to understand why roads are the way they are down here!

    • If he’s really married to his wife, he must have strong moral values indeed. Not many husbands are.

      This comment column reminds me of a road with its two green demarcation lines on each side, albeit one that precariously slopes to the right. Look how we’re drifting off into the sidebar area. Let’s call Mr. Ball. Maybe he knows how to level this thing.

  2. Extending Mr. Halberstam’s teachings, perhaps losing one’s mentor is as if they are left on the cutting room floor (left behind). If this is true, Andreas, he would be proud to know you are that much denser, carrying on the quest for good writing and all the other things you do.

    I think in Native American culture, there is a concept that all those family and friends, and mentors, who went before us are simply standing behind us, backing us up and that we are merely at the tip of the sword of which they are all a part. It feels like density to me. And is reassuring, like a good book.

    • Now that I am reading Beowulf again and will hear a lecture on the Barbarians next Wednesday, I am into swords. Thanks for this image, Steve.

    • You’re living the dream of geeks like me, Cheri.

      Wouldst that I had the leisure to read the classics as you are doing, at a mature age when I might actually grasp them.

      Beowulf: A “Geat”, if I recall. Geat = Goth (I am sure, but ask your teacher to confirm). Alternative pronunciations of “Gothland” inside place names: Gotland (Swedish island), Goteborg (ditto), Jutland (Denmark).

      Beowulf swam across a sea, I seem to recall. It must have been between Sweden and Denmark, right around Elsinore, the location of Hamlet’s castle.

      That’s my conspiracy theory for today. You understand: I’m really just helping you to provoke your teacher.

    • The funny part about your comment is here: Wouldst that I had the leisure to read the classics as you are doing, at a mature age when I might actually grasp them.

      Yes, I am at a mature age, no question. 🙂
      Leisure, I wish.

      As you know with your bookwriting/familyjuggling/dayjobwriting, you fit in what you can, prioritizing along the way.
      And thanks for helping me provoke my professor, who is probably younger than I.
      If anything else comes to your amazing mind (before Wednesday, that is), feel free to add to my knowledge bank.

    • Another image to make the same point, Steve: If we see farther it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants (or at least of those who came before).

      I think it comes from Newton.

  3. Your storytelling, in thisshort story, achieves its purpose: to include your readers in the final stages of your book’s birth, and also to evoke emotion and wonder through a death.

    The last moments of Mr. Halberstam’s life–so rich with action and drama–end with a stranger in a smashed car.

    Again, you remind us of the contrasts.

    Maybe it is my mood today, but this story made me very sad.

    • The details of the crash would make you sadder. The banality of the place, the trip, the crash … So pointless.
      Not Death in Venice, but Death in Menlo Park, at the second traffic light off the Dumbarton Bridge, Sun Microsystems on one side, Willow Road on the other. It kills me when I turn left there.

    • I turn left there every Wednesday night on my way to class.
      Now, as always do on Highway 46 in the Central Valley where James Dean died in his fiery crash, I will think of David Halberstam as I make my turn. ;(

  4. as a an inquirer, is there such a thing as a “less pointless death”? is not the point of death to remind us of the fragility of life?

    not that any answer to these questions would negate your feelings of sadness and loss. whatever you learned from mr. halberstam’s life you have put to good use for your readers.

    • My father passed away in 2001. Having, like most of us, lived a life of quiet desperation. He was eventually done in by a heart irreversibly damaged by a “silent heart attack” some 15 years prior. He knew he was dying for the last four years or so of his life and this took its toll on him also. On his mind. the last two were the worst because he grew increasingly weaker and more helpless. As my mother once remarked, “he just sits there each day waiting to die.” And he often grumbled “If I had known what it would be like…” referring to his decision to have a Pacemaker inserted at the time they found out about his heart condition.

      We talked around it mostly, not directly acknowledging the fact. But I once offered to him that we all want to believe that we will live a full and happy life and then simply die in our sleep one night but that is rarely how it happens. I told him he might consider that he had 78 years in a strong healthy body and try to count his blessings. I immediately felt bad for suggesting such a thing.

      In the end, he died in his sleep a few days after I requested his ventilator be removed (the hardest decision I have ever made). The ventilator should never have been used but his Do Not Resuscitate order was ignored or not seen.

      My point? I think there is no easy way to die except quickly. And that maybe the necessity is something we do not understand.

      My condolences on your loss.

  5. In the interests of being pedantic (it is, almost, my religion… if I actually had one), I must take issue with this statement:

    His coverage of civil rights, but especially of the Vietnam War, influenced history.

    Not with the idea you desired to express (that his works were influential) but with the concept that anyone can influence history. You cannot. The only thing anyone can alter or influence, timeline-wise, is the future.

    Sorry, pet peeve of mine. I am sure he was a great man and did great things and all that. But if he was influencing history, I must look at him askance and wonder if he wasn’t really engaging in propaganda.

    • Sorry, failed to close the italics after history in the second to last paragraph. sigh…. why can I not review my comment before posting my typoes for the world to see?

    • Yes, you’re semantically right, Douglas: He influenced how we view/understand/remember history. Ie, the “history” had already happened, then he wrote about it, and subsequently (his future, now our past) people thought differently about events.

    • I believe Goebbels did that too. I do not like to think that people tinker with how we think about history but I suppose it is inevitable. History, after all, is written by the victors and later edited by the descendants of the defeated. Our view of the past is determined by our present and most recent past and probably by our desires for the future.

      I sometimes wonder if history should be annotated at all. It might be best to just report date and event and leave it at that. I suppose some might view that as dangerous, letting the masses decide what it meant on their own. If they would ever be allowed to. There is always someone telling us what history meant.

      A tip of the hat to Mr. Orwell for “inventing” the “Ministry of Truth.”

      And, yet, I like history and the various interpretations of events. No wonder I am so confused.

    • Interesting point, Douglas, and it’s interesting to discuss “whose” history might have been changed or influenced by a given person!

      But I think ultimately that term (he influenced or changed history) has become an idiom used when referring to someone who has made us look at things differently. Of course there is nothing wrong with having issues with the use of idioms. Don’t get me started on “having said that,” and “at the end of the day.”

    • Ah, but that gets into the human inevitability of storytelling, which is one of the main threads here on The HB. Ie, we CANNOT HELP ourselves. We must tell stories about the past….

  6. Thanks for this! That’s great about finally having to cut things, that it’s bursting–wonderful way to put it–

  7. So, on any given day, we can never be absolutely sure of where we are driving to.

    We may be driving at, yet never make the point intended.

    When the Shadow becomes dense the thin line is broken and whatever was approaching is stopped, dead, in it course.

    No respite is awarded for a better intention; the wheel of fortune brakes… even, and the ink pot, whether pulp or electric, will surrender less than what forensics need to establish a good reason.

    It is the unexpected END of the present, nearing.

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