Olga Khazan is a staff writer for the Atlantic. Her debut book comes out this week (on 7 April, 2020). God bless her (he's clearly of two minds on the matter), as she started her journalism career in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and is now launching her book in the midst of a century-defining pandemic. We talked this week on Cognitive Revolution, about the power of outsiders, Olga's story of how she came to think about "weirdness" as a defining characteristic of people's identities, and her biggest inspirations when she was just starting off. Below are some of the books that got her into the journalism game and showcased the perspective of people observing worlds in which they were outsiders.
"Women's Work" by Megan K. Stack
As Olga describes it: "This is a memoir of her life as a foreign corresponding relying on these domestic workers even as she tries to make her own career and write her own work. She's exploring this dynamic between her work and the work of her domestic employees."
"The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman
According to Olga, this book "is about a case of epilepsy in the Hmong community in California. And it sounds really strange and boring, but it is just so fascinating. It's this interesting exploration of how people think about healthcare, and how people think about illness and wellness, and how the medical system works on a really granular level. And it's just really deeply reported."
"Random family" by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Olga describes this as a book that "just follows a family in New York. Honestly, that is all that it does. It's a level of reporting -- I've done some reporting like that -- where you just hang out with people for days and days, and it's really difficult. I just admire the way that those writers were able to capture those experiences."
"Nickel and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich
This is the book that Olga cites as her biggest inspiration to become a journalist. It's a memoir about Ehrenreich's experience as an undercover journalist investigating the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and how it affected poor people in America. "I read that in high school," said Olga, "and I was really moved and inspired by it."
Honorable Mention: "The Peekaboo Paradox" by Gene Weingarten
Olga credits long-form magazine as one of the main sources of her early inspiration. This piece is "about this children's magician. And that's all I'll say, because to say more would be to spoil it." Just to give you a taste, here's the opening stanza: "The Great Zucchini arrived early, as he is apt to do, and began to make demands, as is his custom. He was too warm, so he wanted the thermostat adjusted. It was. He declared the basement family room adequate for his needs, but there was a problem with the room next door. Something had to be done about it." Read the rest here.
"Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World" by Olga Khazan
As you'll hear in our conversation, Olga tracked down a fantastic array of characters who fall into the demographic of the fundamentally out-of-place: women who work in otherwise exclusively male jobs (think: Nascar drivers), and the lone Muslim immigrant in a town of Christians. Olga's reporting brings a depth of character to these people's stories and reveals the common power each of them shares by interpreting their chosen world by the perspective of someone from outside it. All the while, she ties it back to her own story as an immigrant of Russian Jewish descent living in small town Texas.
"Them: Adventures with Extremists" by Jon Ronson
Talk about a deeply reported book. In this epic work of journalism, Ronson takes a few years to follow around different varieties of extremists: a Muslim fundamental and colleague of Osama bin Laden who is simultaneously trying to overthrow the UK government and acquire UK citizenship; a loosely connected cadre of white supremicists and neo-nazi who believe that the world is run by a group of individuals who all attend the same conference. Oh, and keep in mind, this is pre-2001. As Ronson wrote in a recent tweet, "I thought: Conspiracy theorists believe in the existence of a Secret Room. So I'll join forces with them and together we'll FIND the secret room and get in and confront the illuminati red handed going about their covert wickedness..." Let's just say that what he found in this room is difficult to explain.