Library of Contemporary Thought :
Against All Enemies , by Seymour M. Hersh.
The First Coming , by John Feinstein.
How Reading Changed My Life , by Anna Quindlen.
Interactive Excellence , by Edwin Schlossberg.
News Is a Verb , by Pete Hamill.
No Island of Sanity , by Vincent Bugliosi.
Team Rodent , by Carl Hiaasen.
When the Ballantine Publishing Group announced it would issue a monthly series of book-length commentaries billing itself as the Library of Contemporary Thought and dealing with burning topics of the day, the idea seemed delicious. What could be better than to extend that distinguished literary tradition, which stretches from John Milton’s polemics on divorce; Mary Wollstonecraft’s views on women’s rights; the tracts of Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold; down through George Orwell’s scrupulously honest investigation of English miners in The Road to Wigan Pier ; or Virginia Woolf’s spiraling ruminations in A Room of One’s Own ; or James Baldwin’s coruscating rhetoric in The Fire Next Time ?
Dream on. I have just read the first seven titles in the Library of Contemporary Thought , which average about a hundred pages apiece. Whatever they are, they are not literary.
The intention seems rather to seek out “reader-friendly,” unintimidating, best-selling names–with a distinct preference for popular novelists who first made their mark as newspaper columnists (Carl Hiaasen, Pete Hamill). Future heavy-hitters in the pipeline include Joe Klein, Nora Ephron and Don Imus.
That Mr. Imus has been slated gives us a clue to the “impulse purchase” nature of the publisher’s marketing strategy. Quotable and shoot-from-the-hip seems to be the house style, the one-liner prose of columnists on deadline. Ballantine describes its aim as “giving top opinion makers a forum to explore topics that matter urgently to themselves and their readers.” The term “top opinion makers” finesses the problem of having a library of contemporary thought without thinkers. The schizoid packaging is very telling: The cover designs look aggressively loud, with busy color bands and klutzy type that connote a horror of appearing “elitist” or refined, while the interiors have a clean, understated elegance that bespeaks a hunger for more enduring quality.
The promise, as well as some of the drawbacks, of the series’ approach can be glimpsed in Pete Hamill’s News Is a Verb . Fresh from his dismissal as editor in chief of the New York Daily News , Mr. Hamill was invited to ruminate on what is wrong with newspapers today. Now, Mr. Hamill is far too generous to turn the exercise into a score-settling vendetta. He says: “I want all newspapers to thrive, including those that broke my heart.” What follows is a sort of lengthy after-dinner speech to the press club, without any surprises or novel insights, but with the basic decency that has earned him the love and respect of our town. Mr. Hamill is good company, a mensch, the kind of guy you definitely want on your stickball team.
He has an intriguing vision of the newspaper as a zócalo , a psychological public plaza where “citizens from all walks of life can feel a small amount of comfort in the big, anonymous, alienating city” by sharing a daily reading experience. Much as I am taken myself with Mr. Hamill’s city bias, his need to rehitch newspapers to the “old neighborhood” ethos seems sentimental, given the unavoidable demographics of suburbia. Then again, Mr. Hamill has always had a corny side. This time, he wraps himself in patriotic pathos, saying we owe it to all the journalists who died in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to improve our newspapers.
Come on. We don’t need a martyrology to justify better print media. Often when Mr. Hamill should get more analytical, he goes for the big, emotionally stirring effect. But on the whole, his is a sincere, sensible contribution.
Carl Hiaasen’s Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World is a more typically lame product of the series. He was given an opportunity to vent his animus against the Walt Disney Company, and he took it. As his mystery fans can attest, he is a lively and humorous writer. Still, the sarcastic venom begins to wear thin and, worse, to seem childishly petty (like calling Disney’s chief executive, Michael Eisner, “Insane Clown Michael”). Mr. Hiaasen explains that the “deep resentment” harbored by Florida natives begins with the “destruction of childhood haunts–an ongoing atrocity in which the Walt Disney Company remains gravely culpable, directly and indirectly.” And yet, as he grudgingly admits, Disney is not the only one who has made a killing on Florida real estate.
To build what is essentially a series of dyspeptic humor riffs into something more substantial, he would have had to connect his impulsive dislike to a larger intellectual discourse–to issues of simulated reality, theme parks and late capitalism.
Another entry that feels like the sort of full-length exposé that used to appear routinely in The New York Times Magazine or Harper’s (and still does, on occasion), is Seymour M. Hersh’s Against All Enemies . Mr. Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, when last heard from was uncovering John F. Kennedy’s secret sins in The Dark Side of Camelot . This time, Mr. Hersh has written about Gulf War Syndrome. He raises fascinating points about the “denial” culture of the military, the politics of Veterans Administration medicine, and the scary implications of neurotoxins and uranium poisoning for future warfare. A good job of reporting, but I’m not convinced that it had to be a book. Is it simply that the venues for lengthy magazine articles are disappearing, and so a series like this has been devised to take up the slack? Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life takes the audacious, gutsy stance that reading is good for you. Coming to the defense of bookworms as a despised “silent” minority, she claims that “book love” is all too “undersung” today.
This is the only book in the series that might be called a personal essay, with the caveat that the Ms. Quindlen persona, first developed in her popular “Life in the 30′s” columns, is so smoothly, generationally emblematic, so nonspecific, unidiosyncratic and unconflicted, so public in its I-we merger, that there is nary a thing personal about it. I am not sure whether she is unwilling to play the personal essayist’s game of quirky disclosure, or simply so possessed of a piously conventional liberal outlook that there is nothing odd to tell.
Ms. Quindlen is quick to identify “reading fever as a particularly female phenomenon,” a dubious proposition, unless qualified more subtly than here. “Kafka said ‘a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.’ Perhaps we women are more willing to break the ice. Two things that made this possible most often in many of our lives were intimate friendships and reading.” She sees hope in “the invincibility of the book club” run proudly by “suburban housewives,” sometimes receiving their marching orders from Oprah Winfrey (whom she quotes reverently). Ms. Quindlen goes to great pains to rescue reading for pleasure from what she sees as the “intellectual snobbery” of English professors, who keep trying to draw a distinction between good books and bad books. Strange how a tract in defense of reading should be so shot through with anti-intellectualism: She has learned “covertly, to despise” literary criticism, warns against the “cerebral,” takes Sven Birkerts to task when he complains that his college students are no longer able to grasp Henry James or Washington Irving, for not assigning them a J.D. Salinger story instead.
I think what Ms. Quindlen is doing here is conflating her own soft version of feminism (which sees women as linked to emotion and flowing acceptance, men to erecting hierarchies and “cold” mental tests), with an unacknowledged but self-serving defense of herself as a novelist. Again and again, she takes up the cudgels for the “middlebrow,” defining it as “that code word for those who valued the enjoyable, the riveting, the moving and the involving as well as the eternal.” But there is another, less appealing sense that the term “middlebrow” conveys, and which Ms. Quindlen’s own essay exemplifies: parroting the received views of class and age without ever thinking against oneself.
The flimsiest entry in the series is a celebrity-with-warts profile by John Feinstein about golfer Tiger Woods, while the oddest offers company-prospectus musings by designer Edwin Schlossberg. There’s something goofy about Mr. Schlossberg’s Jungian sweetness, his soft, dreamy visions about audiences coming to respect each other’s differences, thanks to the proper interactive displays. “At Hanna-Barbera Land in Houston there is an exhibit in which people hold hands. The more people who are holding hands, the brighter the lights of the exhibit become.” Wow! On the other hand, for all his bland, prospectus tone, Mr. Schlossberg keeps raising thoughtful questions about what it means to be a discerning, participating audience member. He provides one of the few instances in the series of someone actually trying to wrestle with his assumptions on the page.
Finally, we have the legal brief of Vincent Bugliosi, attorney and celebrity extraordinaire, who put away Charles Manson and told the tale in Helter Skelter , then argued persuasively in Outrage that the O.J. Simpson trial prosecutors botched the job. Mr. Bugliosi comes alive on the page as a real character–pugnacious, preening, egotistical, earthy. In No Island of Sanity , he is out to prove that the Supreme Court made an egregious mistake by ruling that the Paula Jones case should go to trial while President Bill Clinton was still in office. Mr. Bugliosi shows how continuances (delays in court cases until after a government official’s term ends) are routinely handed out to local judges and state legislators, but that President Clinton, against all precedents, was more stringently–and foolishly–dealt with by the Supreme Court. This because of politics and media pressure.
Mr. Bugliosi’s argument is an expanding accordion: He could have made the same points in an Op-Ed piece, a 2,000-word article, 30 pages, 70 pages. What bulks the book to 146 pages are the counselor’s digressions. As long as he is discoursing on legal matters he comes off well, but, unfortunately, he has decided to link the Paula Jones ruling to what he sees as the larger problem, the general “insanity” of our society, which extends in his mind to everything from basketball players being overpaid to women not staying home to raise their children. Mr. Bugliosi is a loose cannon: He is not so much “thinking” about the larger social implications of the legal question at hand as fulminating in every direction.
And this confusion, finally, about the nature of thinking, this inability to make better, deeper use of the methods of reflection, points to a larger editorial failure on the part of this project that calls itself, with unhappy hubris, the Library of Contemporary Thought .
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