Sunday, May 13, 2012

A few words about political books

Though I have a long history with nonfiction, I tend to read mostly fiction these days. And certainly of the nonfiction I do read, it's unheard of for me to read a book blatantly political in nature, let alone two in the space of a month in a half. I wrote up a long response to the first book, but I couldn't organize my thoughts properly and therefore chose not to post it, but those thoughts and feelings have hardly gone away (much of that post served to write this one). Then I made the semi-mistake of reading another "current events" book, one that is significantly more political than the first. I was left with a similarly bitter taste - not because either book was bad, exactly, but something else. Something unique.

There are several problems with these political/current events books (which I have chosen to lump together despite several differences between the two):
  1. Their shelf life is severely limited - a political memoir meant to come out parallel to a major campaign is a short-lived book. Similarly, current events books reflect only a very narrow window in our worldview, thus maintaining relevancy only for a few months (a couple of years, at most).
  2. The nature of the internet has made these books somewhat redundant, in part because of my first point. A blogger (or even newspaper columnist, those that are left) can write an essay, and a few months later update that essay with new information and bring it life once more. A book is static in this regard, and with the political situation constantly changing and shifting it loses its power. In the age of the internet, a printed book is obsolete the moment it's printed. And in the growing age of eBooks, the convenience of having all of the author's thoughts and essays localized in print is much diminished.
  3. People don't really read political books in order to accept another opinion or to learn something new. For the most part, it seems as though we read political/social/religious nonfiction and "current events" books either to reassure ourselves of our own opinions, or to secretly bash the opposing side. In my experience, the opinion I bring with me to the book is the one I leave with, meaning my appreciation  is entirely based on my personal beliefs and opinions, not those actually expressed in the book. To me, this has always felt like a cheap reason to read, and so I avoid these books.
A frustrating manifesto
In my private rant about The Crisis of Zionism, I raged at the fact that Peter Beinart got to spend 200 pages telling me his thoughts (in what is ultimately revealed to be a manifesto...), while I could not respond. It seems cruelly unfair. It reminded me why I don't read political books in the first place. But then I went out and did something stupid - I read Bill Clinton's recent Back to Work, which can be boiled down to the former president making a list of things he'd do if he were still president. Fascinating, yes, but also remarkably frustrating and tedious. And, again pointless.

Why pointless? Well, Clinton nailed it himself: at one point, he casually remarks: "If there are any militant antitax folks still reading this book, I can hear the counterattack forming in your minds." From the very first moment, it's obvious he's not writing this book for those who disagree with him. So who is he writing for? Those who agree with him? Himself?

This is not a rhetorical question. It's the same problem at the heart of The Crisis of Zionism, and it's the same sick taste I get after reading any political book. The short shelf life, the dramatic overtones, the heightened political leanings - and the out-of-place audience. Both Clinton and Beinart write with the cool attitude of a writer confident that the reader will immediately agree with his/her claims. It's arrogant and annoying, and it's been a prevalent shadow hanging over almost every single political book (or even quasi-political book, like The Crisis of Zionism) I've read in my lifetime.

I'm a bad reader. When I read a political book, I'm silently applying its beliefs to my own and judging them, rather than the book itself. Because what is a political book, if not its politics? If it's truly objective, it isn't a political book... it's something else. Something I'd much rather read.

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