~ 27 April 2004 ~

Books as Periodicals

I’m not one to read many of the political books that are floating around out there, liberal or conservative. I’m not referring to books about political theory so much as I am to the ones that pepper the current events shelves at the bookstores. There are the usual lopsided titles by Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Bill O’Reilly and the like, and there are also the “insider’s view” books like the ones by Richard Clarke, Paul O’ Neill, Hillary Clinton. Books like Bob Woodward’s recent analysis of the events surrounding 9/11 fit in this genre as well.

David Kirkpatrick examines the phenomena of such rapidly-appearing books in a recent New York Times article:

Some in the literary world say the trend is debasing serious nonfiction.

“These books are just stupendously enlarged newspaper stories,” said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, who argued that all of the books lacked the thoughtfulness, interpretative insight or literary quality that should distinguish books from newspapers or magazines.

“They represent the degradation of political writing to purely journalistic writing,” he said. “The author in these works has been reduced to a transcriber or stenographer. There is no strenuous mental labor here. It is all technical skill. Books about urgent subjects used to have greater ambitions for themselves, but not these books. But this genre is something that passes, masquerading as something that lasts. Present history doesn’t have to be quite this fleeting.”

Part of the reason I keep the genre at a distance from my reading is that such books often have little lasting value. A year from now they all will be on the remainder table at a clearance price. There’s nothing morally wrong with a book being timely, but it does blur the line that once stood between the periodical and the hardback. Kirkpatrick cites Bob Woodward:

For his part, Mr. Woodward, an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post whose book was excerpted by the newspaper, said he did not have enough time for extensive analysis. “I could take the information in this book and work another year or two years and analyze it,” he said, “but my feeling and the opinion of my editor at The Washington Post, Len Downie, was that it was important that this come out before the election.”

Deadlines have always existed for authors of books, but the pressure of time noted by Woodward has more of a periodical feel to it. Did you notice the trade-off of extensive analysis for timeliness?

What all this means is that nonfiction books are increasingly becoming more market-driven as opposed to being analysis-driven. All of us who read nonfiction should be ever more watchful for details in these volumes that may have been sloughed off in lieu of hitting the market just right.

But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.” [Ecclesiastes 12:12]

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