This week’s issue of the Book Review ranges over American politics but not, we hope, in a familiar way. While some of the books reviewed relate, directly or obliquely, to the presidential election and address many of its most divisive issues — race, gender, religion and war — others touch realms where politics meets the imagination and the present confronts the past. — Editors Note, New York Times Book Review
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s run the numbers: two novels, one book about AIDS in South Africa, one book about European politics … and fifteen books relating to contemporary USA electoral politics. If you were to tag-cloud today’s New York Times Book Review, the words “Democratic”, “Republican”, “President” and “Voters” would completely clobber all the others, and it’s hard to see what distinguishes the commentary here from the rest of our coursing public dialogue (on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines and blogs) about conservative and liberal politics. It’s as if the Book Review considers it a step up when they manage to transcend literature in the quest for topical relevance.
Well, writers and journalists will always yearn to be relevant. But I’m skeptical that the hardcover book market has ever been a fount of relevance in American electoral politics, though, not just because the slow book-production process has aching feet of clay but also because books like Heroic Conservatism by Michael J. Gerson, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again by David Frum, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats Are Closing the God Gap by Amy Sullivan and A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win by Shelby Steele are not read by the general public at all. Do you know anybody who plans to read one of these books? I don’t either.
Take this Obama book by this Shelby Steele, for instance: does the opportunity to know what a Fellow at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution thought about Barack Obama a year ago motivate you to run to Barnes and Noble and plunk down twenty-two dollars? I’m just as likely to go to my neighborhood diner and ask them to serve me a sandwich with last year’s bread.
So who is buying these books? And who is the New York Times Book Review publishing this “Politics Issue” for? I sense that this week’s issue is something like a periodic tithe that the New York career journalists who manage the publication feel they must pay to their own professional class. I’m sorry to say that they do this at the expense of their trusting readers.
I read several articles in today’s issue and found occasional satisfaction. A few of the books under review qualify as primary sources, like Surrender is Not an Option by United Nations envoy John Bolton and Basic Brown: My Life and Our Times by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. A couple of others — The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse by Richard Thompson Ford and Sizwe’s Test: A Young Man’s Journey Through Africa’s AIDS Epidemic by Jenny Steinberg — aim to present hard-hitting original theses about distinct subjects not relating to American presidential politics or American opinion polls, and I’m glad to learn of these books. The reviews appear to be generally even-handed as far as the American political spectrum goes, but not even-handed as far as international scope is concerned. I think “politics” should mean something more than “American politics”, but the book selection here does not reflect that sensibility at all.
I don’t read the New York Times Book Review to help me understand current politics anyway, and neither does anyone else. That’s why I read the daily Times and watch Keith Olbermann and BBC World News (and sometimes, when I want to get enraged, Bill O’Reilly). That’s why I read Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan and Daily Kos and Firedoglake (and sometimes, when I want to get enraged, Little Green Footballs). I read the New York Times Book Review to keep up with fiction and poetry. On this front, Liesl Schillinger’s review of Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self is a pleasing jaunt (though I was already interested in this book, having become a recent Peter Carey fanatic after devouring his wonderful Theft). I’m also intrigued to be introduced by Will Blythe to another novel about our nation’s 1960s/radical legacy, My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru, and I think I’ll give this book a chance.
There’s also a worthy endpaper by Paul Greenberg presenting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s late-career “Pat Hobby” stories in light of our current Hollywood writer’s strike. Put this alongside a Charles McGrath article about Ernest Hemingway and his little-known play “The Fifth Column” in the Times’ Arts and Leisure section, as well as a sweet Valentine’s Day Times Magazine piece by Laurie Kasparian that pivots on a well-chosen William Faulkner quote, and you’ll find that you can manage to hobble together a bit of a literary experience from this weekend’s Sunday Times. But the Book Review is hardly pulling the weight it should here.