Last June, a book sat in front of me that, honestly, I was not inclined to read. Consuming a great deal of nonfiction in my college courses, I browsed the web for favorite bloggers or settled in with F. Scott Fitzgerald during the lazy summer months. But my summer job entailed urging incoming UNM freshmen to read this book, and a pesky voice in my head persuaded me to practice what I preached.
David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America is a well-rounded, nonpartisan account of the poverty plight in the US; while that summary did not necessarily entice me, the personal anecdotes did. I was intrigued by Claudio, an illegal immigrant living fearfully between farmhand jobs, and I was a little heartbroken by Peaches, a homeless, working woman who had been abused countless times. After doing some research on the author—a Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist fascinated with society—I was admittedly a little star-struck as I sat across from him a couple weeks ago.
“My mother raised me to be comfortable in an embassy or in a hut,” said Shipler, who is now 70 years old, with kind eyes and his trademark white beard. “My mother brought me up to believe you can learn something from everyone. And I believe that’s true.”
Shipler, who visited UNM campus as part of the Lobo Reading Experience event from Oct. 15 to 16, shared stories about his beginnings in journalistic digging, his thoughts on the value of the human story and a peek into his most recent work in progress.
Shipler was raised in Chatham, N.J. and received a bachelor’s in sociology from Dartmouth. Then a policy-minded student, he was also actively involved in his college radio station, had interviewed Martin Luther King, Jr. and attended the March on Washington before graduating in 1964. Late in his college career, a creative writing professor counseled him to consider journalism after graduation. Shipler needed to serve two years with the Navy, but he took the advisement to heart.
“The idea kind of kept percolating and midway through my Navy time, I went around and asked to see some editors to find out how you got into journalism,” Shipler said. “I started literally as a copy boy. … running around the floor, getting coffee for editors and stuff like that.”
Beginning as a news clerk at the New York Times, Shipler eventually reported for the city desk on New York housing before moving on to the Washington Bureau and work as a foreign correspondent in Russia and the Middle East. In these nations, he wrote his first books, among which was “Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in the Promised Land.” A still-thrilled Shipler recalled learning that this investigation won a 1987 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction.
“I can tell you that I had no inkling that this was a possibility,” the storyteller said.
He recollected the moment he learned he had won, having called in to the Times from an airport to check on a story he had written. “Joe [Lelyveld, the foreign news editor], got on the phone and he said, ‘You won a Pulitzer for your book.’ I said ‘What? My gosh.’ I never expected that to happen and it was just a tremendous honor.”
The practiced newsman said his interest fundamentally stems from a fascination and appreciation for people.
“There are a lot of interesting human stories here, and it’s not just about abstractions, it’s about real people who want to say certain things and are either stymied or are able to, depending on how they navigate their way through the labyrinth of inhibitions and impediments,” Shipler said. “I [find these] stories compelling and moving and powerful.”
Having explored the territories of American poverty, unrest abroad and civil liberties, Shipler continues to examine the human faces of political issues within his new book on free speech. Owing to his own tried-and-true First Amendment rights, he said he is curious primarily about cultural restraints on free speech.
“I’m hoping to do this book about individual people who run up against these limits and are confronted by others who want to close them down,” Shipler said. The author wants to explore diverse free speech issues, such as censorship, electronic speech and political speech.
A journalist who has confronted race issues, poverty and war, Shipler emphasized that people of any career—in any domain—can make a difference for good.
“Human dignity is a universal need,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are on the socioeconomic spectrum. You crave it and you deserve it, and that is a lesson that [everyone] can learn. You don’t have to be working for an anti-poverty organization to have an impact and make change.”
Keep your eyes peeled for Shipler’s new book or check out his blog, The Shipler Report, for more of the author’s work.