Zack O’Malley Greenburg is a senior editor at Forbes and the author of Empire State of Mind, a biography of Jay-Z. His next book, Michael Jackson, Inc, will be published by Atria Books in June. Off The Shelf had a conversation with Zack about books that have influenced him, from The Great Gatsby to How To Speak Wookiee.
OTS: Tell us about the first book you ever purchased.
Zack: I’m not entirely sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was Off Base: Confessions of a Thief, the biography of baseball legend Ricky Henderson. I seem to recall buying it with my week’s allowance at a book fair when I was in third grade. That was the year I precociously started playing fantasy baseball with some family friends—before any of us had an internet connection—the stats were delivered once a week by fax machine (I still remember the chemical smell of the fax paper as I uncurled each scroll that dropped to the floor).
Henderson was on my team. I loved the way he played, always taking a generous lead from first base and scooting back and forth, teasing opposing pitchers as he prepared to steal second base. The book painted a compelling portrait, and I’ll always remember the details (for example, how Henderson was born headfirst, just like he often slid).
OTS: What was your favorite book as a child?
Zack: Early on, I read a lot of Hardy Boys and Boxcar Children books; I always loved the rapid fire dialogue and got wrapped up in the Scooby Doo-esque plotlines. But I think my favorite has to have been Redwall by Brian Jacques. Despite the fact that the characters were mostly mice, rats, badgers and stoats, they were very well-developed (the series also helped me figure out what a stoat actually is).
OTS: Is there an author who inspired you to be a writer?
Zack: In many ways, my author parents inspired me to be a writer. My father, Dan Greenburg, has written nearly one book for every year he’s been alive; my stepmother, Judith Greenburg, has written many children’s books; my mother, Suzanne O’Malley, wrote a book about Andrea Yates. They all taught me to love fresh language, embrace rewriting, and to sharpen my eye as a reporter.
They also held me to such a high standard that I actively didn’t want to be a professional writer until midway through college, when my dad read a sprawling, borderline-gonzo piece I’d written for the Yale Daily News Magazine about taking an Amtrak train across the country. He loved it so much that he wrote me a note saying, essentially, “Welcome to the club.” And that, combined with the dearth of jobs available in major league baseball front offices, convinced me to head down the path to becoming a professional writer.
OTS: Is there something on your bookshelves we’d be surprised to find there?
Zack: Yes, How To Speak Wookiee. I am a huge Star Wars nerd. I think I still have a book of architectural diagrams reverse-engineered from images of spaceships and other structures in the movies. Not just blueprints for the Death Star or Jabba’s barge, mind you, but (if I recall correctly), detailed plans for others like the Executor. See? Nerd.
OTS: Is there a book you re-read often?
Zack: I try to re-read The Great Gatsby every couple of years. Every sentence in that book is delicious, and it reminds me how important it is to avoid uninspired words or turns of phrase. I think that’s crucial in a world where so much writing is produced quickly, and sometimes carelessly. Lyricism often becomes a victim of speed, and reading Fitzgerald always inspires me to push a little harder, to choose every word a bit more carefully.
OTS: What are you reading right now, and why?
Zack: I’m reading a book called What You Want Is in the Limo, about the birth of modern arena rock in the 1970s….The period of time it covers fascinates me: I find it’s not looked upon as fondly as the rock-and-roll revolution of the 1960s (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones) or the pop golden age in the 1980s (Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince). But the 1970s are a crucial bridge between the two, particularly in the monetization of music, and that’s what this book underscores.
OTS: If you had to choose five books to define who you are, what would they be?
Zack: In no particular order, I’d say: Gatsby, for the reasons mentioned above; Moneyball by Michael Lewis, who’s able to combine statistics and business with brilliant storytelling (something I aspire to do); At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman, who was one of my teachers at Yale and champions the concept of the “familiar essay,” a genre I practiced (successfully!) while courting my fiancée; What Is The What by Dave Eggers, who is such a good writer that he’s able to make the sort of issues that people don’t want to read about into an accessible and often enjoyable read (another thing I hope to do); and Empire State of Mind. Maybe that last one is cheating, but it’s my first book and the proudest accomplishment of my career thus far. I hope I have exceeded it with Michael Jackson, Inc!