One of my favorite ways to find new-to-me nonfiction writers (particularly writers who do journalistic nonfiction) is to read the long stories or profiles that get featured in major newspapers and magazines.
I fell in love with journalist Katy Butler’s writing because of a 2010 New York Times Magazine piece called “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” a look at medical interventions and our path to death. She has a book out next month that expands on the piece, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, that I’ve been reading rather slowly over the last few weeks. It’s equally as wonderful, and a book that probably wouldn’t have gotten on my radar without first reading her NYT piece.
That’s a roundabout way of getting to the reason why I read Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President by Eli Saslow. In June, Saslow wrote a beautiful and, truly, heartbreaking profile of Mark and Jackie Barden, parents who lost their seven-year-old son Daniel in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It’s a remarkably detailed and devastating piece that I couldn’t get out of my head hours after I read it.
Because I loved Saslow’s writing so much, I went online to see if he had written any books. I was glad to find Ten Letters, a 2011 book that explores the relationship between citizens and their president through the written word.
Every night, an aid delivers a briefing book to President Barack Obama. Included among the policy memos and scheduling details is a purple folder that contains 10 letters to the president. Every day, specific staff members at the White House sift through the thousands of letters and e-mails that arrive to choose these letters — 10 voices that presidential aides say help inspire the president and guide him towards that is happening across the country.
In Ten Letters, Saslow profiles 10 of the people who wrote to the president in late 2009 and early 2010. The subjects range in age, ethnicity, location, political affiliation and economic status. Yet all of them felt compelled, for one reason or another, to write directly to the president to have their voice heard. Most didn’t expect to hear back from him, but some did, and their reactions are part of this story too.
I started the book the day that it arrived in the mail and absolutely flew through it. It features exactly the same kinds of things that I loved from Saslow’s profile of the Barden’s, yet brings the stories together in a way that provides context about issues that still matter — health care, the economy, immigration, education. Saslow is able to use these individual stories to give context to Obama’s presidency and offer a snapshot of what it meant to be American at this specific moment.
Honestly, I’m getting the shivers just thinking back to how much I loved this book. Beyond admiring what great journalism it is, I felt inspired by these stories in a way that I don’t often expect from political writing. Saslow is a generous and talented writer who I hope will be writing more. Ten Letters is an amazing book and I hope that you will get a copy to read soon.