What anthropologists can teach journalists: Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things

I’ve just finished Daniel Miller‘s book The Comfort of Things. It’s a remarkable work of contemporary anthropology, in which Miller and an assistant spend 17 months interviewing and observing nearly all the inhabitants on an ordinary street in suburban London.

I think this book should be compulsory reading for journalists and especially students of journalism schools and courses. This is because the approach Miller takes to interviewing and engaging with his subjects is almost the polar opposite of the typical way in which journalists and reporters approach the task.

Rather than approach his task in the one-dimensional, goal-directed way so common of journalists – in which they relentless interrogate their subject until they get the answer they want – Miller gently befriends the inhabitants of this ordinary street, eventually obtaining access to their living rooms and discovering what their material possessions can tell us about their lives, their loves and the status of their lives. It’s the sort of “long-form narrative” that actually achieves the kind of engagement that most contemporary novelists seem to struggle with, let alone journalists. The best comparators I can think of are Iain Sinclair and Theodore Zeldin.

To top it all off, Miller’s writing is beautiful, easily superior to almost anything you’d read in the New Yorker, The Guardian or the London Review of Books.