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Full-throttle journalism

I don't remember a time when I didn't live for books, so the list of books that have changed my life is a long one. But I can nail down the book that made me want to be a journalist: Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson.

I was 16 when my journalism teacher at Robinson High School in Tampa put the book in my hands and said, "You should read this."

It was a revelation. Thompson would become a manic celebrity for his gonzo journalism for Rolling Stone and his hallucinatory skewering of American culture in such books as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Still later, he would devolve into a cartoon character (Duke in Doonesbury) and a real-life burnt-out case.

But this was 1968, and Hell's Angels, published two years earlier, was Thompson's first book. I was as bowled over as I'd have been if a couple of the wild-eyed outlaws in the book had run me down with their Harleys.

The writing was so streamlined and strong that, even though Thompson packed in research and analysis, the book powered forward like a good novel. It bristled with vivid details and scary but thrilling stories of brawls, busts and bad behavior.

This was not polite journalism, which was what most journalism was in 1968. This was not a guy in a porkpie hat and a skinny tie taking dutiful notes for 15 minutes and typing it up in that tired, old inverted pyramid. This kicked butt.

The most exhilarating thing about Hell's Angels was Thompson's then-extraordinary method. He rode and hung out with the Oakland, Calif., chapter of the Angels for a year. He got inside the heads of people like the Angels' shrewd, steely leader, Ralph "Sonny" Barger. And he eventually got badly stomped by a handful of Angels who got testy with him.

Then he crafted the book, a weird hybrid of anthropology, fine writing and seedily swashbuckling adventure. It didn't exactly make me want to hang out with a motorcycle gang, but, boy, did it make me excited about what journalism could be.

How does Hell's Angels, still in print in several editions, hold up 35 years later?

Well, if a journalism teacher gave a 16-year-old girl this book today, he'd be in more trouble than an Angel riding 70 mph into the high side of a rain-slicked curve. After their bikes, the Angels' favorite things were sex, booze and drugs, and Thompson is straightforward, sometimes graphic, about them. But in 1968, I just thought my teacher was ineffably cool.

Some of the book seems quaint, of course (remember when only the dregs of society got tattoos and rode Harleys?), and some of it is nastily retrograde, like the Angels' she-asked-for-it attitude toward rape.

But the writing holds up, and I was mightily impressed with something that went over my head in 1968. Thompson writes with sharp insight about how irresistibly the Angels were shaped by the media.

In the early '60s, they were a small gang of ragtag nobodies. But during the time Thompson knew them, the New York Times, Time, Newsweek and countless other news organizations turned them into a kind of celebrity nightmare, inventing and exploiting the image of the Angels as 20th century Huns.

And at least one of the Angels that Thompson wrote about has a real knack for reinventing himself. When I went to Borders to pick up a new copy of Hell's Angels, my original long since loaned or lost, another book caught my eye, gleaming black, silver and red from the "New Books" display: Dead in 5 Heartbeats: A Novel by Ralph "Sonny" Barger.