“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.

Bookmark and Share