TOP SHELF BOOKS: The Accidental Life by Terry McDonell

TOP SHELF BOOKS: The Accidental Life by Terry McDonell

accidental life

The Accidental Life

by Terry McDonell

I’m on quite a run of super dope books lately, you guys. How shall I tell you how much I love this book? Let me count the ways.

I’m not going to do that.

Terry McDonell is 72. He was most recently the editor of the Time Inc. Sports Group (he also founded Lit Hub and is the President of the Board of Directors of the Paris Review Foundation). In his new book The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers he looks back over his long career as a magazine editor, providing wonderful stories of the writers he edited and knew and became friends with.

Here’s is a very impressive partial list of the magazines he top-edited (industry slang for being the head editor of a magazine):

Outside, Rolling Stone, Esquire, US Weekly (which was monthly before he took over), Sports Illustrated, Newsweek.

Not too shabby I reckon.

Here’s a very impressive partial list of the writers he recruited and edited (or was friends with) for his various magazines:

Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Ford, Richard Price, George Plimpton, James Salter, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, PJ O’Rourke, Jimmy Buffett (actually a good writer!), Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert F. Jones, David Carr.

It’s veritable murderer’s row of of the best writers of the last 50 years. The only writers he wanted to work with but never got the opportunity? Joan Didion and Michael Herr. You can’t win em all I guess.

This is simply a must read for writers, editors, those who want to be writers and/or editors, those who like writing and reading, and those who generally like words. You will be engrossed and delighted with each new story.

McDonell’s love for writing and writers is evident on every page. He started as a writer – and is a good one, evidenced by this book – before transitioning to the editing side of things. Along with great editing and writing advice, The Accidental Life is full of hilarious and interesting stories about the writers he worked with and became friends with: Hunter Thompson really was an insane but brilliant writer; George Plimpton was six-foot-four and a great athlete; cocaine and marijuana were ever-present in magazine offices and parties back in the day; Livingston, Montana was, weirdly, a gathering spot for great writers and artists, some choosing to live there, or at least own a house.

Over the course of the book, McDonell’s life’s path begins to take shape. Friends come and go. Work comes and goes. Love is gained and then lost. As he gets older, people around him start dying. He honors each fallen comrade with loving anecdotes and honest details, and ends each soliloquy on just the right note, stirring the reader’s emotions.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It made a deep impact on me. It also increased my to-read list on goodreads quite a bit. You will discover writers you can’t wait to read, and you will come away with deeper admiration for the great American writers who brought about and cemented New Journalism. All the longform, literary-tinted stories we all love so much nowadays was pioneered by the writers in this book, and over seen by visionary and tenacious editors like Terry McDonell.


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