Jessica Mitford, onetime “queen of the Muckrakers,” blew the lid off the overpriced casket and funeral industry in the early 1960s with “The American Way of Death.” For a while, people were requesting funerals in the “Mitford style” and a “Jessica Mitford” casket — the cheapest available. This 1979 collection includes some of her best investigative journalism and commentary on how she did it. (Mitford died in 1996). The book is a great primer on how think about reporting in a way that makes a difference in people’s lives. When I was a reporter, I often turned back to these pages for inspiration. She also popularized a word, “frenemy,” that some might imagine is of more recent vintage, in a 1977 op-ed piece [pdf]. Her interviewing advice:
Kind questions are designed to lull your quarry into a conversational mood: “How did you first get interested in funeral directing as a career?” Could you suggest any reading material that might help me to understand more about the problems of Corrections?” and so on. By the time you get to the Cruel questions — “What is the wholesale cost of your casket retailing for three thousand dollars?” How do you justify censoring a prisoner’s correspondence with his lawyer in violation of the California law?” — your interlocutor will find it hard to duck and may blurt out a quotable nugget.
[Originally posted on my discontinued This Old Book Tumblr.]