Publishing world's bumper crop of political rants deserve no raves

Books

July 09, 2006|By MARGO HAMMOND | MARGO HAMMOND,ST. PETERSBURG TIMES

Ever hear the mantra, "Too many books, not enough space?" Book editors now have a new complaint: "Too many political screeds, enough already."

"I have become very selective when it comes to political books," said Frank Wilson, book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, in a recent post on Critical Mass, the new blog created by the National Book Critics Circle, the country's premier organization for newspaper and magazine book critics. "I look for the one that has something different to say - they're certainly rare enough - and is likely to be overlooked. The same holds true for febrile environmentalist tracts: I have little sympathy for the apocalyptic. The new ice age never showed up, the population bomb never went off, and I guess I missed the famine in the '80s."

"The ideological landscape has certainly changed since 2000; it's gotten a lot more fractious," Mary Ann Gwinn, book editor of the Seattle Times, wrote on the blog. "Many books that are now published are more statements or screeds than books based on years of research, experience and analysis."

I, too, am tired of all the partisan and sensational books coming across my desk. My own philosophy in picking political books for review has been to choose those that engender discussion, not disgust. What we need, I figure, is more light, not more heat. Why ask a reviewer to provide an intellectual evaluation of Joseph Minton Amann and Tom Breuer's Sweet Jesus, I Hate Bill O'Reilly or Ann Coulter's Godless: The Church of Liberalism? It would be an exercise in futility.

These name-calling books from the left and the right aren't meant to solicit thoughtful discourse; they are missiles, launched into the political fray to enrage the opposition.

The routine is well-known by now. The screedniks call their opponents "stupid," "a big fat idiot," "treasonous," "evil" or "godless." The sensational tirade makes the news, and their books make it to the top of the best-seller lists. Their inflammatory style fires up their loyal followers, and the ensuing publicity brings out the curious, wondering what all the hoopla is about.

Will the rant cycle ever end? Valdis Krebs, a social network analyst from Cleveland, thinks it may already be winding down. In 2003, and again in 2004, Krebs, the founder of orgnet.com, an online consulting company, created some curious social maps based on the online purchases of the 100 best-selling political books. Tracking what other books were also purchased by the buyers of these popular titles, he traced out a social network graph that showed two distinct divisions: on one side was a cluster of right-leaning books with criss-crossing connections to each other. On the other side was an equally tight community of readers, but this time of left-leaning books. In other words, readers on the left and right were not reading each other's books.

Now Krebs is updating his study of book-buying patterns. Although his results won't be published for another few weeks, Krebs says that a preliminary look at the data is pointing to a shift in the pattern of how people are reading political books. Those echo chambers may be breaking down.

"Maybe people are sick and tired of authors like Coulter and Moore and are picking up titles like Suskind," he offered, referring to Ron Suskind's One Percent Doctrine, a book critical of the Bush administration written by a Wall Street Journal reporter.

Maybe book editors are not the only ones experiencing political screed fatigue.

Margo Hammond is book editor of The St. Petersburg Times.

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