Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Books Without Content

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So, it’s been a week, and the situation is nowhere nearer resolved than it was, bu I seem to have reached a point of emotional exhaustion where I just can’t stress any farther past where I am, so I can read again.

Sort of.

In terms of this level of not being able to read, I’ve been there before–there come times when maybe I’ve just been doing too much of it, and it all feels stale, or I have a cold and I’m not thinking too well, or I haven’t been able to sleep.

When II’m at that particular stage, the best thing for me is polemicist nonfiction of about a middlebrow level–linear thought, clear writing, straightforward exposition, interesting subject.  I can find these books on both the right and the left, but whichever side they’re on, I always argue with them.  Most of the “new atheist” books fit into this category, but so do James Hitchcock’s What is Secular Humanism? and Mary Pride’s Coming Home, both of which are, well, let’s just say they’re not in favor of attheism.

It used to be easy to find books like this.  All sides of the political spectrum regularly put these out–Thomas Franks’ Whatever Hpappened to Kansas, Bruce Bauer’s While Europe Slept–although the right tends to be more diligent about producing books for a “broad general audience” than the left does these days.

What gets to me is that, over the last few years, I’ve been running more and more into books that seem to be of the sort I want, but that are instead exercises in repeating platitudes with little or no content involved.

A satisfying book of the kind I’m talking about often has a predictable thesis–Islamofascism is going to take over the world by stealth; the working classes of America have been hoodwinked into voting against their best economic interests; the welfare state is causing crime, illegitimacy and homelessness in the inner cities–but it takes this thesis and does something with it.  It provides extended arguments.  It presents evidence of various kinds. 

The new kind of book, the one without content, does none of these things.  It states its thesis, and then it states it over and over again.  What there is otherwise than the restatement tends to come down to repeating varoius kinds of “conventional wisdom” without attributing it to anybody or anything, as if we all knew it, the way we know the earth is not flat.

Back at the beginning of h is career, Dinesh D’Souza wrote one of the best of the books of the kind I like in these moods, Illiberal Education: The  Politics of Race and  Sex on Campus.  Anchored on D’Souza’s experienes as a conservative undergraduate at Dartmouth, it was a partisan but extremely interesting approach to a subject I am always interested in, and it provided me with lots of information I didn’t have before.

Contrast this to another book, also by a staffer at National  Review, Ramesh Ponnunu’s The Party of Death:  The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the  Disregard for  Human Life.

When I say this book is thin, I don’t mean it’s short, although it’s that, too.   I mean it’s literally thin.  There isn’t a single thing in it that I didn’t already know, in the sense that I’d already heard it a hundred times on television.  

These books always get me going on some point or the other, because, being partisan, they always get some things wrong, but in this case the wrong items were also all over television, so that it felt sort of silly to be yelling at them. 

I can’t imagine a single person anywhere on earth who would have been informed about anything by reading this book.  It’s a book for people who already think and know everything in it and just want a rehash, although why anybody would want that, I don’t know.

As I said, these books have begun to appear all over the political/religious/philosophical spectrum, so just to show that I don’t mean to be one sided, I give you The Christian Right and the Rise of American Fascism, by Chris Hedges.   If the Ponnuru book sounds as if he’d “researched” it by watching television, the Hedges book sounds as if he’d “researched” it by spending a couple of weeks smoking dope with the University of North Carolina chapter of the Very Indignant Indeed Left Wing Students Association.

Nobody who knows what the word “fascism” actually means, noone who knows the first thing about the history of the twentieth century, can read Hedges’s book without getting a headache.  It is one screed after another based on a set of assumption Hedges apparently doesn’t realize that most of his fellow citizens don’t share.  A lot of it is what I call the “shock! horror! grass is green!” school of journalism.  You know what I mean.  “Do you realize,” the writer asks breathlessly, “that they’re actually mowing their lawns in Dutchess county?”

The tone of voice, narrative or actual, is of someone delivering the news that the sherrif’s department is running a sex slave ring out of the town jail, but the actual content is more on the order of “cats breathe air.”  To the fifteen or twenty people for whom cats breathing air is a scandal, the announcement is probably very satisfying.  For the rest of us, the exercise is just confusing.

Here’s my problem–I don’t get the point here.  Why do people write these books, and why do people read them?  I understand the middlebrow stuff I do like–you can in fact get information from those books, and a window on a point of view that may not be your own.   Besides, looking at the evidence from the other side is a good way to understand the issue more fully than you do. 

But this second kind of book seems to me to be a complete waste.   If you know nothing about the issue in question, these books will not convince you.  They don’t provide enough information, and they don’t provide much in the way of logical argument.  If you already hold the point of view they favor, you’ll do nothing but hear it repeated in a way you can get from many other sources without spending money for them. 

Cheryl says she can’t read Ann Coulter because of the toen, and I sympathize, but I think that what got me started on this entry is the fact that  Coulter has written both of the kinds of books I’ve been talking about.

This latest one is, alas, of the second kind.

Written by janeh

February 28th, 2009 at 9:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Books Without Content'

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  1. “If you already hold the point of view they favor, you’ll do nothing but hear it repeated”

    And that right there is the reason for the books. A certain category of people, who probably don’t read all that much or all that widely, are willing to pay for, and glad to have something to point to, that agrees with their preconceptions completely.

    They aren’t the market for the substantive books with actual content. They listen to conservative radio or read liberal websites because they already know what they’re going to see or hear. It’s more of a sacrament than an exploration, it just confirms their place in the world and how they see themselves.

    That’s my take on it, anyway.

    on vacation, still opinionated….


    28 Feb 09 at 10:49 am

  2. Odd. I’d have put Franks in that “content-free” stack. He spends several hundred pages arguing that if only the Democratic Party moved further to the economic left, socially conservative Kansans would vote for Democratic candidates. It’s possible, but where is the evidence? Poll results? Voting in local elections? Results in other states? Nada. Wishful thinking makes a 15 minute sermon, not a “non-fiction” book.

    Yet Franks sold well, which may be the point. His readers wanted to have their existing beliefs confirmed, which is always a popular thing, and they enjoyed being told that what they needed to do was what they wanted to do anyway. I privately think of such books as “beer and potato chip diet” books. There was one a few years ago teling people how good for them watching evening TV soap operas was.

    In either case, a book which said you have to sacrifice to get what you want–that you’ll have to give up the potato chips to lose weight, or change your entertainment to be better informed and alert–might have been more accurate but less popular. And if Franks had written that Democrats wanting a more progressive income tax structure might have to give a bit on homosexual adoption and quotas for cross-dressers, he might not have gotten that big display as you walked into Borders.

    Whch may be why the good stuff is harder to find. Coulter had to put serious work into TREASON and GODLESS. If she can move about as many copies of HOW TO TALK TO A LIBERAL and IF DEMOCRATS HAD ANY BRAINS, why go to the extra effort? As a nation, we get only what enough of us will pay for, and we’re stuck with whatever enough of us will put up with. I find it a little depressing sometimes in books, music and cars.


    28 Feb 09 at 12:29 pm

  3. I must confess that I rarely read the sort of book that Jane is talking about. Too American and too short lived. But that’s a matter of taste and budget – the local library rarely buys them.

    >Nobody who knows what the word “fascism” actually >means, noone who knows the first thing about the >history of the twentieth century, can read Hedges’s >book without getting a headache.

    Yes! I have reached the point of treating fascist, nazi, communist, socialist, liberal, conservative, right wing, left wing as meaningless noise.

    And I’m considering adding torture, justice and human rights to the list of noise words.


    28 Feb 09 at 3:46 pm

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