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The Monday Media Diet with Toby Harnden
On Afghanistan, Nevis, and print books
I recently went on an Afghanistan binge, re-reading a lot of the most notable books on the war: Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy, friend of WITI Chris Chivers’s The Fighters, Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and his follow-up Directorate S. I also read Toby Harnden’s new book, First Casualty, about the first CIA teams in Afghanistan and the first death of the conflict when Mike Spann was killed in the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi prison uprising. It was excellent. Toby is an author, journalist, and winner of the Orwell Prize. A former foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times of London and The Daily Telegraph, he has reported from 33 countries. We’re happy to have him on the page today. -Colin (CJN)
Tell us about yourself.
I'm a former foreign correspondent trying to make a go of being a full-time author, juggling that with some editing and ghostwriting. My latest book is First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA MIssion to Avenge 9/11 (2021) is centered on the eight-man CIA team—including Mike Spann—who were the first Americans behind enemy lines in Afghanistan in 2001. Before that, I wrote Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain's War in Afghanistan (2011) and Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh (1999). As you can see from those years of publication, I need to speed up a bit and that's why I'm now lining up my next book. In my own defense, I've been pretty busy beyond books, spending close to 25 years working around the world for British newspapers, specializing in terrorism and war but often getting diverted into politics and other stuff. I've been based in London, Belfast, Washington D.C., Baghdad, and Jerusalem, but now live in Virginia with two teenage children and a dog.
Describe your media diet.
It's always shifting and usually fairly random. I stopped watching cable TV two years ago and that was a huge relief. I subscribe to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Times of London and often dip into those. At the start of the day, I get an Associated Press email that is very useful and I really enjoy Bill Murphy's Understandably.com newsletter. The aggregation sites Memeorandum and Drudge Report are always a quick way of catching up. I'm increasingly drawn to Instagram and I now listen to a ton of podcasts about all sorts of stuff—these two things I find to be an antidote to the glibness and fury of Twitter, which I remember when it seemed like a refreshing place to bounce ideas around and try things out.
What’s the last great book you read?
I recently re-read Killing Rage (1997) by Eamon Collins, a raw, visceral, and really powerful account of what it was really like to be an IRA man during the Troubles. Eamon turned against the IRA but would often flip back to venerating them. He testified in court against an IRA leader and was later abducted while out walking his dogs, viciously beaten, and then killed with a hunting knife and a screwdriver. I got to know him well while I was researching Bandit Country and the way he died in 1999 still haunts me.
What are you reading now?
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000) by Nathaniel Philbrick. It's a masterpiece of narrative non-fiction and an example of what can be done by piecing fragments together and engaging in deep research, especially into human behavior. Also on the go: Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974); Incident at Muc Wa: A Story of the Vietnam War (1967) by Daniel Ford; and the newly-released Black Ops: The Life of a CIA Shadow Warrior by Ric Prado.
What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?
The only thing I read in print really is books. If it's non-fiction (which it mostly is), I usually start by reading the index. Then I'll look at maps and photos and read the Acknowledgments and any Author's Note to get a sense of the sources and methodology. Acknowledgments can be very illuminating and are often not given much thought in the editing process—meaning that if a book is shallow or has little new in it then the Acknowledgments will reveal it and I can stop right there. I never pay any attention to blurbs and if I had my way they would be banned by the publishing industry. If I'm feeling impatient, I'll often start reading chunks that I'm most interested in straight away, even if they're late in the book. I try to exercise the willpower to curtail this pretty quickly and start reading from the beginning—though I might then skim or skip parts if the pace isn't right. I have a bad habit of having many books on the go at the same time.
Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?
Books, printed on paper. I find it astonishing to go into houses and see a complete absence of books. There is something about the physical impact of a book—the dust jacket, the texture, the quality of the pages, the maps, the ability to scrawl in the margins (in 2B pencil) and insert bits of paper as labels—that cannot be replicated in e-books and audio. Having said that, I do use e-books (usually PDFs downloaded from places they probably shouldn't be) to search for words or particular passages if I'm reading for work rather than pleasure. It's also worth noting that lots of books are bought but never read—I feel that many tomes that are published (especially political ones) would be better off as bumper stickers.
What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone?
It isn't an app but I use this site so often that it has its own icon on my phone—Bookfinder.com.
Plane or train?
Trains were an early love. I remember one late-night trip to the north of England with my father, standing between the carriages eating a burnt sausage; I must have been about seven. As a student, I used Interrail passes, traveling all over Eastern Europe before the iron curtain fell. The Interrail equivalent in the U.S. was the Greyhound bus pass and I went from east coast to west coast and Canada to Mexico on one of those. These days, however, it's almost always planes, though they've become so miserable since COVID that if I possibly can I jump in my truck and drive.
What is one place everyone should visit?
The island of Nevis in the Caribbean. But everyone visiting would ruin it.
Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into.
I just spent part of my afternoon watching videos of small children playing with dead squirrels. My ongoing low-intensity war over protecting the bird feeders on my deck somehow led me there. (TH)
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Toby (TH)
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