Monday, August 29, 2011

Why Political Current-Events Books Suck

Dick Cheney has a new autobiography out, called In My Time. In it, he says that the "undisclosed location" you kept hearing about during his time in office was in fact his house. Past that, Dick Cheney is Dick Cheney for a couple hundred pages.

Congratulations. You have successfully read In My Time.

In fact, you have successfully read every political current-events book or autobiography ever.

I make a point of not buying any of these books. I've been burned by them enough times to where I've soured on the entire genre. There's no point in curling up with any of them, be they slanted left, right or center. The way you "read" one of these books for maximum return is, you let someone read it who's paid to read it, let that person pick out whatever new revelations happen to be in the book (and usually they will pick out one or two), let the book pass through the one news cycle it will occupy, and then promptly forget the book ever existed.

Because you will promptly forget the book ever existed.

Some years down the road, these books turn up in a used bookstore like all the others. One of the reasons I like used bookstores is that they are a book's test of time. It's a test of a book's shelf life. If you see a brand new book on the shelf and it looks attractive, fine and dandy. But it may not look that way ten years down the road, and unless you're the type of person to quickly resell a book, it's going to keep sitting there on your shelf, possibly getting less attractive by the day. If you go to a used bookstore, though, and see a 10-year-old book that looks attractive, odds are you'll be fine.

Political current-events books and autobiographies have the shortest shelf lives of anything likely to appear in that bookstore. Including the periodicals. The thing about a political book referencing current events is that the book ceases to be relevant as soon as the next election hits or too many of the major figures in the book (or certain key figures) leave office. It may even cease to be relevant upon some single piece of news- a bill addressing something the book spends a lot of time on is passed, for example. By the time it hits a used bookstore's shelf, it seems dated to the point of comedy, sitting alongside titles about Tip O'Neill and Dan Quayle, and books which warn of the consequences of voting incorrectly in an election from the 1980's where both winner and loser have since left public service.

Did you read Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them? I did. There's a whole chapter in there going on about how the death of former Senator Paul Wellstone was turned into a political event that led to the election of Norm Coleman to Wellstone's seat. Since the book was written, Franken ran against Coleman and took Coleman/Wellstone's seat. Does this chapter now have any further relevance to anything? Is there anything more we can squeeze out of it? I highly doubt it. (And that's not even getting into all the chapters concerning Bush 43.)

That kind of thing happens all across the genre.

In the most extreme cases, this can happen even before the book is ever made available for sale. Jerome Corsi, for example, put out a book on May 17 entitled Where's The Birth Certificate? asking, of course, where Barack Obama's birth certificate was. (Astute readers may recall me not wanting to give the birthers the time of day after a piece I wrote in April. Sorry. They're needed today.) On April 27, however, about three weeks before it was put on store shelves, Obama held a press conference that basically went 'Here, here's the damn birth certificate; the state of Hawaii made an exception to their normal rules and released it just so you'll stop calling them about it and keeping them from their actual work, now will you shut up about it already?' The media spent the rest of the day tearing birthers a new one for wasting everyone's time with lunacy. (They promptly found fresh and exciting lunacy to give airtime to, but hey, we can't have everything.)

Where's The Birth Certificate debuted at #6 on the New York Times bestseller list anyway, though the Times had placed a symbol next to the book's listing noting that some retailers had gotten bulk orders. That's a bad thing. That means the book publisher may be, and likely is, inflating sales figures by buying a bunch of copies of their own book. As if to underscore the point, the next week it dropped to 14th, and then out of the top 35 entirely. It never returned to the list.

By comparison, the book immediately above Where's The Birth Certificate? when it debuted on the hardcover nonfiction list, Bossypants by Tina Fey, was on the list for its seventh week at the time. It's now in its 20th week, yet to fall out of the top 10. Lest you think I'm cherry-picking, the current top 10 have been on the best-seller list for, respectively, 6, 40, 15, 2, 2, 13, 20, 12, 15 and 6 weeks. There's a lot of stability at the top of the list.

And the bulk-buying symbol showed up again just one week ago... for After America: Get Ready For Armageddon by Mark Steyn, another political current-events book, which is currently in 4th place, one of the pair of 2's.

Just by looking at the title- After America: Get Ready For Armaggedon- can you guess the general gist and tone of the book? Of course you can. It's the same gist as the ones called In Defense Of America or The Coming Armageddon or whatever we're-all-gonna-die-and-it's-all-Obama's-fault book is this week.

This is the other thing: forget the old phrase 'you can't tell a book by its cover'. In this genre, the hell you can't. Is an Ann Coulter book called Demonic really going to be any different from an Ann Coulter book called Treason or an Ann Coulter book called Godless or an Ann Coulter book called Slander or an Ann Coulter book called Guilty: Liberal "Victims" And Their Assault On America or an Ann Coulter book called How To Talk To A Liberal (If You Must) or an Ann Coulter book called If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans? They're all Ann Coulter being Ann Coulter for a couple hundred pages.

It's like the old criticism of Madden games being annual roster updates. All you have to do is look at the author, look at the title, and you've basically got everything there is to get out of it. None of these books are going to be all that much different from the author's usual fare. Someone will buy them for sure, but once those people pull out the little scraps of interesting information, there's not much point to them beyond their one little news cycle.

Needless to say, none of these books are going to be joining the Rapid-Fire Book Club anytime soon. I may buy a lot of books, but every book I buy, I buy with intent to read. I gravitate towards titles that tell me something new, that present new stories, fresh ideas, challenging thoughts.

And there's nothing fresh or challenging in this section.

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