Doing Better: New books show NC still a hotbed of good storytelling

From O. Henry and Thomas Wolfe to Lee Smith and Kaye Gibbons, North Carolina’s reputation for first-rate storytelling has spanned three centuries. It doesn’t show signs of diminishing anytime soon.

Numerous recent novels – including Michael Parker’s “All I Have in This World,” Wiley Cash’s “This Dark Road to Mercy,” and Sarah Addison Allen’s “First Frost” – have won critical acclaim. Still, it sells our state a little short to focus solely on its award-winning fiction.

Authors with North Carolina ties have also produced important recent and notable works on sports, personal growth, business, history and faith. These books offer widely diverse perspectives and voices. Yet, they are linked in many cases by common themes of struggle, searching and redemption, providing their own distinct takes on what it means to do better at doing good. And as we begin the last full month of summer, you might want to squeeze a couple of them onto your vacation reading list.

Inspiring battle

Even if you’re not a sports junkie, take a look at the late Stuart Scott’s best-selling memoir “Every Day I Fight.” The renowned ESPN broadcaster, a native of Winston-Salem and graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, completed the book shortly before his death in January at age 49. It recalls his years as a prep sports star and the obstacles he encountered during his rise to fame at ESPN, where he coined his ubiquitous catchphrase “Boo-Yah!” Most movingly, the man who helped transform sports casting with his high-energy persona, shares the inspiring battle that began in 2007 when an emergency appendectomy revealed that he was suffering from cancer.

Insights into grappling with life’s toughest challenges also form the core of “Resilience” by Duke alum, Rhodes scholar and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens. Composed of 23 letters that Greitens sent to a fellow SEAL plagued by PTSD after returning home from war, the book is a worthy companion to his autobiography, “The Heart and the Fist.” “Resilience” eloquently explores the big questions of happiness, vocation, pain and death. It seamlessly weaves the wisdom of Homer and Aristotle with metaphors about shooting pool – and provides a glimpse into the mind of a rising political star. Greitens is considered a leader for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Missouri.

Scott and Greitens both built powerful personal brands, and marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark demystifies the process of creating one in her new book “Stand Out.” An adjunct professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur and Forbes, Clark digs into the three main steps needed to become a thought leader who creates professional opportunities and drives societal change. She examines the keys to finding a breakthrough idea, building a following around it, and making it happen – and offers practical guidance for making progress in each arena.

Advocate for the voiceless

Winston-Salem Journal writer John Railey quietly stands out in his own way as an advocate for the voiceless. His new book, “Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age,” recounts the secretive and aggressive state-sponsored program that sterilized more than 7,000 North Carolinians – many of them poor, young minorities – from 1929 to 1974 in a horribly misguided effort to improve the state’s gene pool. After working with fellow reporters to publicize the story in 2002, Railey pressed hard – and, ultimately, successfully – for reparations. Two years ago, North Carolina became the first state to compensate victims of eugenics programs.

Finally, Greensboro’s Emily P. Freeman invites readers to slow down with “Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World.” Freeman’s contemplative, Christian vantage point in previous books has vaulted her onto The Wall Street Journal best-seller list. Here, she covers some of the same big questions as Greitens with an invitingly reflective and musing style anchored in faith and family life. How, she asks, can we navigate the everyday tensions of success and envy, community and competition, and vision and contentment?

These aren’t the kinds of questions you’re likely to resolve during a week at the beach. But, in posing them, these books make us want to try.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.