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Waiting for the nastiness

The audacity of the political bestseller
By John Heath

John Heath
John Heath is a professor and chair of the SCU Department of Classics.
Photo: Charles Barry
I teach Homer—and a few dozen other long-dead authors—for a living. This may be the best job ever. Although I can think of nothing more relevant to the modern world than the classical cultures, I am aware that spending too much time in the past has its dangers. (At least one neighbor has complained about the 100 oxen roasting in our backyard on holidays.) So a few years ago I decided to catch up with modern America, not by actually hanging out with it, of course, but by doing what any good academic would do—by reading the same books America has been reading.

My co-author (Lisa Adams ’98) and I read more than 200 books from the 1991-2006 bestseller lists, funneling our findings into a book called Why We Read What We Read: A Delightfully Opinionated Journey Through Contemporary Bestsellers. It was an eyeopening adventure. We found that many bestsellers actually do the opposite of what they claim: Inspirational books obstruct change, romances keep readers lonely, and thrillers provide comfort. Perhaps most disconcertingly, nonfiction political bestsellers almost universally undermine the very democratic values they claimed to defend.

Democracy depends upon the open exchange of ideas. Yet bestselling authors from the recent past displayed a lack of empathy, indeed a pride in rejecting other viewpoints without consideration. Left or right on the political spectrum, it made no difference; Michael Moore matched Ann Coulter irrational rant for irrational rant. The most popular bestsellers—we analyzed not only the very top political titles from 1991-2006, but all 40 books that made it onto a bestselling list in the election year of 2004—were written by already-famous politicos for an audience of the converted. Readers were clearly searching for “evidence,” no matter how shaky or invented, to support what they already believed. A glance at the titles of some of the most popular political books reveals the self-righteous theatrics lurking therein:

It just seems fishy when bestselling nonfiction books sound like movies starring Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis.

Imperial Hubris, Worse Than Watergate, Deliver Us From Evil, The Enemy Within. It just seems fishy when bestselling nonfiction books sound like movies starring Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis. In short, Americans overwhelmingly preferred books that presented complex political issues as simple matters of good and evil—books that ignored or attempted to eradicate conflicting perspectives entirely.

Lisa and I continue to analyze bestsellers on the Why We Read What We Read blog (www.whywereadbooks.com). As a tragic realist (it’s the classicist in me), I have not been surprised that bestselling lists since 2006 generally look a lot like those from previous years. But perhaps my pessimism is premature. So far in 2008 there has been one major change in America’s bestselling reading: the comparative absence of bestselling political spew. As I write this, we are more than a third of the way through the election year and there have been only four bestsellers specifically about American politics (remember, in that last presidential election year there were 40—did I mention that I read them all?). And these four have a distinctly different tone. Steven Colbert’s I Am America (And So Can You) undermines conservatism through humor, not wrath. Glenn Beck’s conservative An Inconvenient Book can be wittily self-effacing. Even Newt Gingrich has climbed onto the bestselling lists by claiming we need Real Change and that America is not divided into red and blue (although, well, it’s still the Left that causes most of the problems). And the ultimate changefan, Barack Obama, offers his nowfamous optimistic take on the future in The Audacity of Hope.

These are the four bestsellers? These hopeful, not-very-angry books?

We keep hearing that Americans are ready for change. Are the bestseller lists evidence that we are making it happen? Are these books a good indication of a shift in the zeitgeist? We’ll see.

Before election time, readers still have five months to start buying up the latest screed from the radio talk-show hosts and New York Times pundits. Can we resist? My guess—Homer, Sophocles, and Thucydides have been right about human nature much too often for me to abandon them now— is that within a few months reasoned debate will be harder to find than Ann Coulter’s maternal instinct or Michael Moore’s copy of the South Beach Diet. But I’m hoping—really, really hoping—that I’m wrong.