Book is serious, that's no baloney

Philosophical work by Princeton professor on best-seller list

April 23, 2005|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Upon hearing that a book called On Bull---- by a 75-year-old Princeton University professor of philosophy is on the best-seller list and generating all sorts of media buzz from heavy hitters like Today, 60 Minutes and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, one might be tempted to think: What kind of bull---- is this?

But it's all true, which makes this book -- yes, the title is fully spelled out on the cover -- one of the truly quirky stories in publishing today.

The tiny 67-page book by Harry G. Frankfurt, which offers a sober, academic examination of the subject, was No. 3 on The New York Times best-seller list for hardcover nonfiction last week.

After a modest initial print run of 5,000 copies by Princeton University Press, the book, which sells for $9.95, has been reprinted seven times.

A total of 170,000 copies are now in print and more than 150,000 have been sold, an extraordinarily high number for a university press. It's the top-selling philosophy book, by far, at Barnes & Noble, according to Lynne Widli, a buyer for the book chain. "It is being merchandised at the front of the store and in our cafes, and because of its tiny size, also on our information desks," said Widli. "The book appeals to a wide audience and is selling very well across the country."

Even the smallish, independent Ivy Bookshop on Falls Road in Baltimore has sold 20 copies since the book's release in January, according to buyer Nelson Bowers.

Fueling the sales are the self-effacing professor's TV appearances, as well as articles about the book in the Times, Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Chronicle, among others.

"It's just such a surprise book for all of us," said Princeton University Press publicist Debra Liese. "At first, we assumed it would appeal to philosophers. We expected to have some cross-over appeal, but certainly not what's happened."

No one is more shocked at the book's success than Frankfurt, who moved to Baltimore with his family at age 10 and attended Forest Park High School before going off to Cornell.

After all, his previously published work (The Reasons of Love, Necessity, Volition and Love and The Importance of What We Care About) explored more traditional -- and some would say eye-glazing -- philosophical fare.

"I'm kind of stunned" by how well the book is doing, Frankfurt said over the phone from his office at Princeton. "I thought it would have a sort of pseudo-success because of the titillation of the title and the subject, and the spectacle of an Ivy League professor descending ... to that level [of coarseness].

"But I didn't expect it to be taken that seriously."

On the other hand, the book was definitely not meant to be taken lightly. It is, after all, not a knee-slapper.

You won't find it in the humor section of your local bookstore.

In fact, said Frankfurt, "there was a proposal that a picture of a shovel [appear] on the cover. I was very opposed to it because it seemed to vulgarize and trivialize the subject.

"I intended this to be a serious, scholarly, analytical essay."

Still, said Liese, Frankfurt had hit on "a very appealing idea to a lot of people. Here's someone taking society to task for something that has been ridiculously prevalent in our culture. ... Not too many people examine [this topic.]"

In the book's first page, Frankfurt writes that as a society "we have no clear understanding of what bull---- is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. ... I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding ... mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis."

Which he then goes on to do -- sometimes in excruciating detail, and in the kind of dense, meandering prose that does not make for easy reading.

As to how the book actually came about, Frankfurt said his fascination with the topic began years ago.

"I know I have always been very concerned about the importance of truth ... and dismayed by the lack of truth ... in society," he said.

In 1985, sick of all he was hearing, and sensing that others were sick of it, too, he wrote a lengthy essay on the subject, which developed a cult following among eggheads on campus.

Among the high points was his contention that "the essence of bull---- is not that it is false, but that it is phony."

And since the person talking is not lying, but actually paying no attention to the truth, "bull---- is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

In his essay, Frankfurt also posited that it's impossible to know if there's more of it around now than at other times in our history.

But if there is, he wrote, one possible reason is that "Bull---- is unavoidable whenever circumstances require one to talk without knowing what he is talking about."

And, today, he said, there is the "widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs."

Some might say this signaled academia's first slam at talk radio, although Frankfurt did not delve any further into the topic.

In any event, last year, Ian Malcolm, the philosophy editor at Princeton University Press, suggested publishing Frankfurt's essay in book form.

Frankfurt thought the idea was crazy.

"I thought it might be of interest to academics in English courses or writing courses," but to few others, he said.

Instead, the book is riding a small tidal wave of publicity, and the phone rings constantly in his university office with another request for an interview.

And now, he says, his wife of 15 years, Joan Gilbert, wakes up every morning and runs to the computer to see how the book's sales are doing on Amazon.com.

The bottom line is that at age 75, totally unexpectedly, Harry G. Frankfurt finds himself a genuine publishing phenomenon.

Just for holding a mirror up to society -- and cutting through all the bull.

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