Demeaning popular culture: the crime of the non-book

THE ARGUMENT

September 17, 1995|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to The Sun

Publishers are forever bemoaning the sorry state of the industry, the precarious fate of the mid-list book, the disappearance of readers. Let this warning then issue forth: Editors, don't underestimate your audience, even if it is comprised of septuagenarian nostalgia buffs.

Books should inform and delight, entertain and edify. A book should stand back, survey its subject from some new perspective. A book should illuminate the nooks and cranies even of the familiar, and the popular culture is no less worthy of penetration than the moral implications of cyberspace. Books should offer not more than we need or want to know, but give meaning to the void. As Jonathan Swift put it, a blade of grass should grow where one did not grow before.

Yet even as publishers wail about the cost of paper, they continue to produce endless examples of the non-book, from celebrity hype to regurgitated advice on how not to grow old. It almost seems as if many prefer the non-book which, after all, being empty of perspective, will offend no one. Of course, these books don't offend because few bother to read them.

A recent egregious example of the species "non-book" is Will Friedwald's "Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art" (Scribner. 557 pages. $30), a boring compilation of trivia, of interest, perhaps, to 350 die-hards who might care that "Only The Lonely" miraculously "lays out in a form diagrammable as A A'A A'B A A' in a single devastating chorus." Sinatra has been the quintessential pop singer of the century. Wouldn't we do better to listen to him sing?

It is said that about 50,000 books are published in the United States each year. This includes textbooks and crosswords. It is still a staggering figure given the few that will be advertised, reviewed and stocked in bookstores, let alone read. Do they all need to be published? Are they all really books? Have publishers lost sight of what a book actually is?

That superb teacher of writing Dashiell Hammett, one, by the way, of Mr. Friedwald's heroes, once told thenfledgling novelist Eliot Asinof that anyone can describe the "what." It's the "why," Eliot, the why that makes good writing, Hammett said. Fifty years later, Asinof, author of "Eight Men Out," remembered Hammett's words.

In "Sinatra!" events just happen. Mr. Friedwald, a non-writer (his previous books are about jazz singing and Warner Brothers cartoons), never once bothers to examine the causes of his character's behavior, not even his famous shift from liberal Roosevelt Democrat to Reagan Republican. His book can be said to be taking up valuable space that might be deserved for an author willing to do the legwork.

"Sinatra! The Song Is You" is the quintessential non-book, full of detail, yet about nothing. Trees might have been saved, paper better left for books that have something to say. In place of a book, we have a fanzine orgy, dragged over 516 pages, of the glories of Frank Sinatra - as a singer. Clots of detail describe his arrangers, producers, record companies. We are told of each rendition of a song: when he takes a breath and when he doesn't, when he changes keys and when he doesn't, E-flats and D-flats.

Throughout, Mr. Friedwald gushes over Sinatra, whom he admits "doesn't fully read music" (well, either he does or he doesn't), calling him "The Voice," "Ol' Blue Eyes," "The Chairman." Of point of view all we have is Mr. Friedwald's assertion: "no popular recording artist has ever been as totally believable so much of the time as Sinatra." Mr. Friedwald does reveal the complex artistry that went into every rendition, but a magazine article might have established that.

While it may be argued that there remain "Sinatraphiles" who will lap up any and all information about their hero, even they might have liked to see him up close. Of Sinatra the man, in Mr. Friedwald's book there is little. We don't see him at home; we don't see him married to Nancy, Ava, Mia or Barbara; we learn nothing about the role of his singing art in his life as a whole. Of his motivations, there is less than zero.

A promising note

Mr. Friedwald knows that in his 500 some odd pages he must at least acknowledge Sinatra's Mafia connections; we've all seen "The Godfather," after all. Mr. Friedwald swiftly brushes the evidence aside. Preposterously he tells us that "one is finally left with the impression that Sinatra's persistence in being photographed with hoodlums like Sam Giancana and Spiro Agnew had only held him back." What?

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