Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Obama the Probable; Machiavelli for Hillary; Thomas Mann as Pick-Up Ploy

The subtitle of Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win (Free Press, $22) is out of touch with the times: We’re more than merely excited, and as for winning—well, yes we can.

Consider the pace of book publishing: Mr. Steele shops his proposal about a year ago and delivers his manuscript in midsummer. Pause for four or five months while the machinery grinds invisibly. At last, in early December, the book appears in stores—by which time the “plausibility of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate” is old news. And two months later—now that plausible is probable—it’s safe to say that nobody shares Mr. Steele’s concern about Mr. Obama finding his own voice and becoming “an individual rather than a racial cipher.”

At the tail end of an essay about Mr. Obama in The New York Review of Books (March 6, $5.50)—after dismissing A Bound Man as a “thin and unhappy meditation”—Darryl Pinckney floats an intriguing idea: “It could be said that Obama’s way has been prepared not by Colin Powell … but by Nelson Mandela, who emerged from his prison not bitter, calling for reconciliation.” Mr. Pinckney adds that Mr. Mandela “was the one figure on the world stage who persuaded us that he was exactly what he seemed to be.”

I like to think that in time Shelby Steele will hear Mr. Obama’s voice and recognize him as an individual who is, like Nelson Mandela, exactly what he seems to be. Mr. Steele may even become an Obama guy—anything’s possible. He could even give up on the slow-poke book industry and publish a sequel to A Bound Man on the Web. He could call it Obama Unbound.

 

NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI’S THE Prince (Modern Library, $8) has been reissued in a new translation (by Peter Constantine) and with a useful introduction by Albert Russell Ascoli, who reminds us that “the first and best lesson of The Prince is that we must ‘read the signs of the times.’” I’m thinking I might send a copy to Hillary Clinton. …

 

THOMAS MANN AS pickup ploy? We were skeptical, but a friend insisted that we explore the possibility. She pointed us in the direction of Jim Collins’ romantic comedy Beginner’s Greek (Little Brown, $23.99), which begins with a meet-cute: Boy on airplane falls for girl because of the thick paperback she’s perusing. “To sit next to a beautiful young woman on a flight from New York to Los Angeles is one thing,” Mr. Collins writes. “To sit next to a beautiful young woman on a flight from New York to Los Angeles who is on page five hundred of The Magic Mountain is quite another.” Just in case we missed the point, he adds, “A young woman reading The Magic Mountain had to be intelligent and patient and interested in a range of different ideas.” Later the young woman in question spouts a testimonial blurb: “I do like being plunged into this totally serious … profound, ultraprofound consideration of all the big things. Life, love, death, art, freedom, authority.”

So is it working? Are young women everywhere eager to display a copy of The Magic Mountain at 40,000 feet? Vintage, which publishes a paperback edition, reports that the title “sells consistently well for us. While there was a slight bump in sales, it’s difficult to pinpoint the origin.”

Airport bookstores, would be our guess.

Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Obama the Probable; Machiavelli for Hillary; Thomas Mann as Pick-Up Ploy