No, Chris, it isn’t.

“The killer app is information.”

Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic,
quoting former NGM Director of Photography David Griffin
(who is no longer on the Magazine staff)

That’s nonsense, Chris. Information is a killer app for Wikipedia. Or the Oxford English Dictionary. Or the Library of Congress. But for NGS? Our killer app was (and still can be) a way of seeing the world that imbued our lives with a sense of adventure. National Geographic once was produced by people who knew who they were, and who wrote from within those beliefs.

The Magazine is the official journal — not the official journalism — of our Society; we pray that Chris Johns (and John Fahey) will soon grasp the difference.

But don’t listen to us. Listen instead to Barry Lopez. He’s a recipient of the National Book Award, the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the John Hay Medal, Guggenheim, Lannan, and National Science Foundation fellowships, Pushcart Prizes in fiction and nonfiction, and other honors. In 2004 he was elected a Fellow of The Explorers Club. In 2007, he became a National Geographic contributing writer, but later quietly disappeared from the Magazine’s masthead.

Here’s Mr. Lopez from the introduction to his book, About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory:

… Once I was asked by a seatmate on a trans-Pacific flight, a man who took the liberty of glancing repeatedly at the correspondence in my lap, what instruction he should give his fifteen-year-old daughter, who wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know how to answer him, but before I could think I heard myself saying, “Tell your daughter three things.”

Barry Lopez

Tell her to read, I said. Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she’s reading to be trash. No one can fathom what happens between a human being and written language. She may be paying attention to things in the words beyond anyone else’s comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind. Tell her to read classics like The Odyssey. They’ve been around a long time because the patterns in them have proved endlessly useful, and, to borrow Evan Connell’s observation, with a good book you never touch bottom. But warn your daughter that ideas of heroism, of love, of human duty and devotion that women have been writing about for centuries will not be available to her in this form. To find these voices she will have to search. When, on her own, she begins to ask, make her a present of George Eliot, or the travel writing of Alexandra David-Neel, or To The Lighthouse.

Second, I said, tell your daughter that she can learn a great deal about writing by reading and by studying books about grammar and the organizaton of ideas, but that if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn’t come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing along information, of which we are in no great need. So help her discover what she means. [emphasis added]

Finally, I said, tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to  live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.

Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar. Every writer, I told him, will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three I trust.

≡  iPad photo via

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  • Kristin Sturdevant

    Great response.  Having just read “Strength in What Remains” by Tracy Kidder, I especially like the admonition that “a good book never touches bottom” and that an author (and in this case, the teller of a human being’s incredible experiences and journey with him) has to “become someone.” That is deep learning, and leads to discovering one’s beliefs. And to “separate…from the familiar.” Great writing takes us to unfathomable places in ourselves.  Kudos.

    • Hi Kristin – I took a peek at “Strength in What Remains” — and just put it on my “must read” list. Looks like an amazing story…. Thanks for the suggestion — and your comment. 

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