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Bad to the Bone

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So, okay.  Periodically, I generate quite a bit of heat on this blog by saying that I think that there are objective standards that can be used to determine if a book is “good.”

Let me go to a related question:  are there objective standards for what makes a book bad?

As with questions about what makes a book good, I’m not talking about taste, here–what I find enjoyable and what I find not enjoyable are entirely subjective, and rather beside the point.

I’m brought to the question of the day by a very specific book:  Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason. 

And interestingly enough, I’m not brought to it by any of the usual suspects.

Gore’s book is mostly a pile of platitudes with a peculiar quality of having  been written in a bubble.  Published in 2007, it laments the “fact” that Americans have been shut out of the public forum now that that forum has been taken over by television. 

Reading through it, I found myself checking back to the date, over and over again.  Gore seems to have missed the whole Internet-bloggers-rule-the-world thing, and to be fretting needlessly over a looming catastrophe that has already played itself out and passed into only dimly remembered history.

Whether or not you’re going to “like” this book has a lot to do with whether or not you buy into this particular set of platitudes.   If you do, you’ll love it and think it’s smart.  If you don’t, you’ll roll your eyes and pick up the next volume by Bill O’Reilly.

If you’re deliberately contrarian, as I tend to be, you’ll go slightly crazy during the long chapter on how government shouldn’t keep things secret but should put all the information out there so there can be reasoned public debate.

I went crazy during all that because I kept thinking:  fine.  Then let’s let everybody who practices affirmative action in college admissions and hiring put all their numbers out, by race, so we can actually see who’s right and who’s wrong about standards being either kept steady or bent in terms of race.

I also got a little nuts in the parts about how Americans are being subjected to a campaign of fear–after all, I’ve actually seen An Inconvenient Truth. 

The parts where Gore goes on at length–very superficially, but at length–about neuroscience just sounded like the text of a science class book reporter written by a mediocre seventh grader.

No, the thing that got me wondering if it was possible to call a book objectively bad was this:  there is an enormous, gaping disconnect between the book’s central thesis (we aren’t using reason and logic anymore because we don’t read enough, but watch television instead) and what the book actually does.

Or, rather, doesn’t do.

And what it doesn’t do is make an reference to books.

Okay, I’m getting convoluted here.

This book exhibits a nearly mindboggling dearth of actual references, and a nearly complete dearth of primary references.

There are end notes, but there are no markers in the text to tell you when something will have a note at the end.  You have to go to the back of the book and look up the page you’re on to see if there are any references to what you’re wondering about.

The chances are, there won’t be.  At one point, Gore misquotes Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli–or I think he does.  I only think because he does not identify ‘the treaty” by name in the text, and there is no note at the back identifying it either.  The quote is in quotation marks, signaling that it is supposed to be verbatim, and it is ascribed to a treaty signed by John Adams in 1797,  but there is no Article in the Treaty of Tripoli that says the US isn’t based on Christianity OR Islam OR Judaism OR any other religion.  The actual quote refers only to Christianity, and starts “As the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion…”

I have more patience than some of you do with the weasel word thing–the constant circumlocutions about how “it may be possible” that something happened “as much as X times.”    It doesn’t make me think that well of his character, but I get the bit about covering your ass.

What gets me, however, is that after references like this, I go back to the end notes and find, not a reference to the actual study–but to a newspaper or magazine article about the study.

So I’m told that “one study” “suggests” that “as many as 27” Iraqi prisoners were murdered by US service personnel, but I don’t get the name of the study or the auspices under which it was done, and when I look at the end notes I find a reference to a NY Times article about the study and no explanatory matter following the reference that would give me the name or the auspices.

And it’s just not that once.  It’s over and over again.  I have yet to find a single reference to an original source anywhere.  I get newspaper and magazine articles, op ed pieces, quotations from talking head news shows–it’s insane.

My son’s prep school wouldn’t have accepted this as a research paper in junior history.  Or English.

Hell, I wouldn’t accept this as a research paper. 

It began to get a little raw, being lectured page after page about how the Republicans are trying to destroy reason and logic by going for the emotions instead, and how they never presented any evidence–only to be handed nothing in the way of actual evidence for that thesis or any other.

For all I know, everything Gore says in this book may be true.  The simple fact is, given the research he’s presented to me, I could never find that out. 

I got excoriated somewhat a few years ago for saying that Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code was a bad book because almost every claimed ‘fact’ in it (including the streets in Paris) was wrong. 

In that case, though, the book was a novel, and the argument could be made–and was–that it didn’t matter what was wrong, as long as the story was good.

I do think, though, that if a book tells me it is defending the use of reason, logic and evidence in public debate, and then gives me absolutely none of the last and little of the first two–

I have an objective basis on which to say that book is bad.

Written by janeh

June 28th, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Bad to the Bone'

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  1. I do most of my whining at the notion of an objectively SUPERIOR book–and often mean novel. But even I don’t deny there is such a thing as an objectively BAD book–and I read enough of this one myself to agree that it qualifies. And it’s not, I think, just that I disagree with much of it.

    Anything with a thesis is “good” to the extent it backs up that thesis with facts and reason, and bad to the extent that the facts aren’t true, aren’t sourced, can’t be confirmed or aren’t relevant and to the extent the reasoning is unsound. I don’t think it’s even necessary for the book to be about reason–though this compounds the felony in Gore’s case. If you’re telling people that something is true, or that they should do something, then to be taken seriously you have to explain what led you to that conclusion. By that standard, by the way, MEIN KAMPF and DAS KAPITAL are better books than many I agree with ideologically: Hitler is consistent from his premises, and Marx scrupulously documents pertinent information–most of the time, anyway. The BEST books will be true, because truth and sound reasoning won’t lead to falsehood, but often we reason imperfectly from inadequate information.

    Mostly not as bad as ASSAULT ON REASON, though.

    This is worse because I’m still reading GAUDY NIGHT. Lord Peter has come to a conclusion not favorable to his efforts to win Harriet Vane. Harriet expresses some surprise and Peter replies “That is my opinion as an honest scholar, viewing the question academically and on its merits.”

    Perhaps if Mr. Gore stepped away from his computer for a few days and read some proper fair play mysteries, he might write acceptable non-fiction.


    28 Jun 11 at 4:28 pm

  2. Thanks for the warning. Another book I won’t buy!

    But I admit some curiosity. What does a report about Iraqi prisoners have to do with “Assault on Reason”?


    28 Jun 11 at 8:25 pm

  3. Al Gore himself _is_ the worst assault on reason in living memory. From what I’ve read, his entire oeuvre is irrational, with emotionalism, ad hominem and argument from (very dubious) authority as his preferred tools of debate. I sincerely hope, although I do not confidently expect, that he and his merry little band of charlatans will get their comeuppance when the whole global warming scam finally blows up in our faces as it seems about to do RSN.

    A pox on him and all his pals.


    28 Jun 11 at 9:09 pm

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