Until last week, the conventional wisdom regarding current-affairs books was that they preach almost exclusively to the converted, or at best to the intellectually open-minded, but that a book — or even several dozen of them — couldn’t really make a difference in an election.
But with the Democrats taking both the House and Senate last week in a landslide midterm election “thumpin,” it’s beginning to look like the writing wasn’t just on the wall: it was also on the bookshelves.
Recall that Noam Chomsky zoomed to the top of bestseller lists when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez held up a copy of his book Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance at the U.N. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward didn’t need any such promotion to get his latest, State of Denial, to sell a million copies during its first three weeks on sale.
Political titles published early in the fall have been flying off the shelves ever since. Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, named this month as a National Book Award finalist, continues to sell, as does veteran New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s The Greatest Story Ever Sold.
This barrage of political titles speaks to a larger trend in American bookselling.
“We have seen double-digit increases in this category for the past eight years — 20, 25 percent, 30 percent,” says Bob Wietrak, vice president for merchandising with Barnes & Noble. “It slowed down in 2005, but it zoomed right back up in 2006 when the war became a hot topic.”
From the revelations of Woodward in State of Denial to the reporting of people like Thomas Ricks, author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Americans seem to have turned away from fiction and toward nonfiction to understand the world.
“It really started in the year 2000,” Wietrak says. “That’s when both the conservatives and the liberals really started to focus on and were very energized by books. The country has been split 50-50 for a long time, and the books are kind of like rallying points for the believer.”
Publishing insiders cite factors ranging from the shock of 9/11 to shifts in how traditional journalists do their jobs as causes for the bonanza of political titles.
Colin Robinson, executive editor at Simon & Schuster imprint Scribner, believes the boom points to a weakness in the traditional print and broadcast media.
“There used to be more real investigative journalism in television and newspapers than there is now,” he says. “A lot of newspapers are cutting the numbers of the reporters they’ve got. So I think there is a real sense in that you can only find the info in books.
“You can also see the way it works,” he adds. “A lot of these books are being written by journalists who are often holding the information back because they can use it to sell their books.”
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon.com and author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, says this dilemma looms in the mind of every reporter with a book deal. “All the time you are thinking of that one-page press release and what new it will have to say.”
To be fair, in many cases papers — especially in these cash-strapped times — simply don’t have enough space for the kind of in-depth reporting a writer can do in a book. And most journalists with a scoop lack the option of waiting for a book deal before they publish.
But three of the most spectacular successes of this year — Woodward’s State of Denial; New York Times reporter James Risen’s State of War, which contained a scoop on the National Security Agency’s wiretapping; and independent writer Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, all contained crucial pieces of context in how the war on terror was being prosecuted.
The Partisan Divide
Rea Hederman, who started a line of books from the likes of Joan Didion, Bill Moyers, and Garry Wills for the venerable New York Review of Books, believes there is a larger explanation.
“I think the popularity of the books has much to do with the secrecy of the Bush administration. After six years of this treatment, the public is anxious to know, and they are turning to these books for education. Further, I believe the books are being read, not just bought.”
In addition to the journalistic exposés, another category of political sellers feeds the needs of political activists, who are hungry for books that will confirm what they already believe — sometimes to the detriment of the entire field of political science as a whole, publishers say.
“I do think there is a category of these books which has gotten terribly shrill,” says Drake McFeely, president of W.W. Norton.
Mr. Robinson agrees. “There has certainly been a lot of books out on the one side bashing Bush, on the other side attacking liberals, and it’s hard to think there is really very much original to say in those frameworks any longer.”
Sometimes, several publishers say, it seems as if the most partisan books, such as Ann Coulter’s, grab most of the media attention. But there are signs that people hunger for more.
For instance, when the war in Lebanon started over the summer, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart brought on the author of The Shia Revival to talk about the changes in the Middle East. Immediately it began selling.
“It wasn’t a bestseller,” says Mr. McFeely. “But the good news was that in moments of trouble, Americans rise up and read more broadly.”
This kind of literary circling of the wagons isn’t a new phenomenon.
Harold Augenbraum is executive director of the National Book Foundation, the nonprofit organization that gives out the National Book Awards. This year’s finalist list contains no fewer than five books related to 9/11 — including Wright’s The Looming Tower, and all of them tell the story of 9/11 from an American point of view.
“You really have to look at other traumatic events in American history,” he says. “I’m sure around the time of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas there was a rush of books to make sense of this; that’s the only analogous situation.”
The difference now, however, is that the situation, via the war on Iraq, is ongoing. And this means there will be more — plenty more — of this kind of publishing to come.
“We have a lot of books still to come this year,” Mr. Wietrak says, “and if trends stay the same, 2007 and 2008 will be bigger than ever.”
That’s good news for Barack Obama on more than one front.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.