Reviewing the Review: February 10 2008

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.

6 Responses

  1. Race, gender, religion and
    Race, gender, religion and war? We have a black male candidate and a female candidate, one of which will be running for president as the democratic nominee. Time to move on to, you know, stuff more pertinent to the American mind. Economy. Taxes. Lack of insurance. You know. All the stuff that really plagues this country in this day and age. You can leave the war part in there though. However, once I see these things omitted from a political discussion, especially one that’s supposed to be fresh and really wants to talk about issues, or causes, not effects of the real problems, my eyes glaze over.

  2. Don’s eyes are always glazed
    Don’s eyes are always glazed over, but that’s not the point. There is only one issue, war. $10 million an hour would fix a lot of the other problems. There are only two kinds of children, those who are living and those who are dying. Either we change these things, or we’re culpable for not doing so.

  3. The New York Times Book
    The New York Times Book Review is great, I usually grab the Sunday edition from my local coffee shop to see what the hot new titles are. I also like to keep my eye on the few remaining independents for obscure, Lefty books.

  4. Thanks for the LGF link. I
    Thanks for the LGF link. I know of that blog but seldom — essentially never — look at it.

    I can’t imagine what would possibly make you mad there.

    I remember Ariana when she was bearding for her multi-millionaire husband who ran for Senate (Feinstein beat him). Then when she was wanting to be Newt’s consort. Her first web site was about impeaching Clinton. She shaved her beard and kept a huge fortune for her troubles and decided she could get more attention from the looney left of Hollyweird.

    Can’t take her or anything associated with her seriously.

  5. TKG, I respect the work
    TKG, I respect the work Charles Johnson does at Little Green Footballs, because he’s an American original with an appealingly direct style. LGF has also done some good original investigative work, as with the famous fake Reuters photos he exposed a few years ago. What I get enraged by is this popular notion — very popular, in fact, and not only LGF but many of my own friends and relatives believe it — that Islam is an intrinsically violent or hate-filled religion. This “meme” has for obvious reasons taken on a life of its own since the September 11 attacks. My own studies (I was a philosophy major with a specialty in Comparative Religion in college, and have been fascinated by religion my entire life) tells me that Islam is no different from any other major religion in its attitude towards violence. Al Qaeda is a political phenomenon, not a religious one. The idea that “Muslim terrorists are different” because they are willing to die for their cause is absolutely laughable. Humans have been willing to die for their cause since the dawn of mankind. When they die for *our* cause, we call it heroism.

    Again, my key point is that militant Islamic fundamentalism is a political movement rather than a religious one, and we can deal with it much more effectively if we realize this. LGF is committed to the opposite idea, and that’s why I often find them enraging.

    As for the Huffington Post, TKG, I know about Arianna’s strange history and her conversion from right-wing to left-wing. My first encounter with her was different and more positive than yours — I read and enjoyed her biography of Pablo Picasso. I think the Huff Post is a vibrant political website, like LGF, and I guess my biggest point here is that all of these websites are where political discourse takes place today. Hardcover books, representing manuscripts composed long before the book appears in print, are great for most forms of literature and discussion, but I don’t think they can be very effective as far as topical current-event areas like presidential elections are concerned.

  6. Hi Levi, thanks for your
    Hi Levi, thanks for your explanation. I am sure that there are people who think that “Islam is no different than any other religion” is a meme that’s out there as well — a pretty wide spread one at that, eg look how the US Government bends over backward to make this point in being inclusive — and these folk get mad when hearing it.

    Questions of how much is inherent to the actual beliefs and practices of Islam vs how much it is a “hijacking” of Islam that doesn’t represent what it should be is debatable and that’s the crux of the matter.

    Co-incidentally I just came across something by someone named Evan Sayet who seems to be mad that there is so much emphasis on indiscriminate opinions or ideas now — ie that everything is all the same and equal, such as Islam is just another religion. I think you’ll find it enraging, but perhaps also interesting Link here

    Thanks also for the Charles Johnson name at LGF. I’d forgotten his name and didn’t see it anywhere on the site.

    I of course agree with you about where the political discourse takes place, where the real happening stuff is. I am sure I am unduly prejudiced against Huffington Post and haven’t read much there ever. I was glad to see you there. Do they pay?

    I do think that the NY Times is a political institution above all and that this will be reflected in the Book Review (notice it is a Book review, not literary review). The Times is there for politics and to be a player. It will permeate the Book Review as well and we get boring reviews of boring books.

    I always look at LA Times Book Review and most everything is not too interesting except there will average on or two articles that are worth it. If there is one article a week where I get to read a good article about a new book or interesting topic I figure that’s all I can hope for.

    It is election season and it is an interesting set of events this year.

    See you at Disneyland.

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