Hatchet to Hatchet, Dust (Jacket) to Dust: Reading The New York Times Nonfiction Bestseller List
By Zach DorfmanMarch 17, 2015
A FEW YEARS AGO, I attended a conference on the future of long-form journalism where, no matter the stated topic of a panel or subject of a keynote speaker, the subtext always involved how one could make one’s bread as a writer in this brave new world of content farms, where payment comes in the form of “exposure.” A prominent, talented young journalist, who had published in a number of high-paying magazines of national repute, and had in fact written a story that became an award-winning, high-grossing film, revealed his strategy for remuneration: he now only wrote about subjects, he said, that he specifically believed would be optioned for development as a movie or television series. No one in the audience blinked.
At the time, I thought this technique was quite clever — having writing pay your rent is so rare nowadays that when it is done, and especially done well, we should all celebrate — and still do. But the more I’ve considered it, the more bothered I am by the consequences. Should writers try to orient their work around the potential for movie or television deals? If they do, will this lead (in a kind of vicious circle) to only certain kinds of stories being told and others ignored, thus creating an appetite in the public exclusively for those types that are already plated and served to them piping hot, ready for consumption? And what if, more insidiously, this dynamic actually leads writers to alter their craft, to write through a camera lens?
Democracy has its own integrity. I’ve never thought the quip that it is the worst system — except all the others — to be a particularly cynical one. (The alternative to political skepticism is hubris, and hubris leads to fanciful and crackpottish ideas about, say, the relationship between tax cuts and human freedom.) In politics, there is an appealing, restraining wisdom and rightness to catering to the mean. When it comes to culture, though, giving “the people” what they “want” is often perverted (as it sometimes is in politics) because many of those needs are manufactured by elite purveyors of cultural goods themselves — talk about cynical! — and however much entertainment results, this is not all we want from our literature. I’m not arguing for an unthinking snobbery — we don’t need to pass through the eye of a needle to gain the kingdom — but we should try, as Hannah Arendt once memorably put it, to better “think what we are doing” in our shared cultural life, as a community of readers, and not simply queue up for whatever the culture industry proffers.
In 1973, Gore Vidal read the fiction bestseller list for a piece in The New York Review of Books called “The Ashes of Hollywood” — Vidal’s piece was the inspiration for this one — in which he concluded that each of the bestsellers was, in some fashion, an accomplice and subordinate to Hollywood, or the world of “entertainment” more broadly. (In one flawless, caustic aside he refers to a passage by Herman Wouk as “not at all bad, except as prose.”) Arguably, the force of his argument has only been magnified over time. What is particularly surreal is that these insights now seem to apply just as well to the nonfiction bestseller list as they did to the fiction one. This contention of Vidal’s is what I have tried to keep in mind while reviewing the following 10 books, which constituted The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list during the week of January 18, 2015.
Three of these books, Wild, Unbroken, and American Sniper, have already become films. A fourth, The Boys in the Boat, is on its way to a theater near you. Three authors — Bill O’Reilly, Lena Dunham, and Amy Poehler — are eminent entertainers. The popularity of their books has to be ascribed in part to preexisting name recognition (you know, like on the marquee). One author is a former president, which, while a distinct category, is in 2015 a special kind of mega-celebrity. All in all, only two of the books — one by Randall Munroe (a cartoon-drawing, former NASA roboticist with a famous website, xkcd.com) and the other by Atul Gawande (a surgeon, professor of medicine, and New Yorker staff writer) — have not yet become absorbed into this entertainment-industrial publishing complex.
Any affinity between these books is unplanned, of course, and more interesting for it, since one cannot “curate” our collective cultural unconscious. Unsurprisingly, a number of other shared themes also emerge. Unbroken, The Boys in the Boat, Killing Patton, and 41 deal with World War II in some fashion. Now, I detest Fascism as much as the next man (not exactly a controversial position in 2015), and no doubt World War II was a pivotal event in American and world history, and has served as the world’s moral compass ever since. When we talk today about “genocide,” for example, we are referring to a crime that was not codified in international law before 1948. This newfound attention to individual human dignity, and the consensus that humankind must never allow another Holocaust to occur (a promise that has been serially broken), was one of the few dim rays of light in some very dark times.
How we long to fight with unambiguous moral clarity, where our force of arms is only surpassed by the unadulterated righteousness of our cause! And how difficult, in a post-Vietnam, post-Iraq, post–War on Terror, post-Guantanamo world, to maintain this fiction. Half a century later, and with good reason, Hollywood has yet to meet better prefab villains than Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. And the result, I fear, is that America continually conflates the “Good War”(to call it thus should signal how rare such conflicts are) with the many wars that preceded it and followed in its wake. Our obsession with World War II undoubtedly reflects a desire for a world, very much unlike ours, in which the use of military force can be seen as free of moral complications, and these books all cater to that desire.
In terms of genre, biographies and memoirs dominate the list. There is not one serious book of history among them (sorry, Bill O’Reilly). Hillenbrand, a meticulous researcher, comes closest in Unbroken. Journalists, and the practice of journalism, are noticeably absent. Ditto criticism and critics, whose work — they (we) will never hesitate to tell you — is deeply undervalued. The gender discrepancy isn’t too pronounced, with six male authors and four female. Of the four female writers, three have written memoirs of sorts. We shouldn’t make too much of this, though: American Sniper also belongs to the confessional genre, as do elements of Being Mortal and 41. We have an insatiable appetite for stories involving personal revelation.
Lastly, save Gawande, all of the authors are white. I don’t think this is necessarily due to some deep intentional structure of the publishing industry itself, but I don’t think it’s mere happenstance, either. For example, in an informal 2012 study conducted by Roxane Gay, almost 90 percent of all the books reviewed by The New York Times in 2011 were found to be written by white writers. Decisions made in different corners of the industry — who gets the cover story, or scores the book deal, or is reviewed in major papers, or is given a budget for advertising or a book tour — resonate outward with many dolorous consequences for literary diversity.
Bestseller lists are the decorous children of the mid-20th century. The frenzy for systems of ranking, now ubiquitous, was part of a larger shift during that period toward treating economic fecundity and value as synonymous — the ideology known as economism — that is now widely taken for granted. The Times, for example, did not even publish a bestseller list until 1931. (In keeping with technological limitations and the paper’s provincial focus, it only surveyed a few select local booksellers.) It was over a decade later, in the 1940s, that a national bestseller list first appeared in its pages. By the 1950s, the Times’ list had settled into its now-familiar role as simultaneous kingmaker and king.
If the preeminence of the Times’ bestseller list remains unchanged, the intellectual situation surrounding it certainly has. Sixty years on, it is difficult for me to conceive of a world where no one knows what everyone else is reading, and I suspect you can’t either. (The premise itself even feels vaguely dystopian.) The need for external affirmation of our own taste is widespread. Sometimes, in moments of self-doubt, I am not sure where my own judgments about aesthetic or literary value end and those of the subtle, coercive, popular force carrying along the cultural conversation begin. Yet I sometimes also sense that intellectual and literary culture is more cloistered than ever, that its survival depends (or at least people feel it depends) on segregation from the wider culture of which it is necessarily a part. Others, of course, feel the opposite, and argue for a kind of strategy or politics of mutual enrichment. There have been many very successful examples of this type of writing — clever, exciting, often sympathetic dispatches that challenge our ideas about different aspects of pop culture — that appear in a growing number of forums. While I think it is fair to argue that there is more bad nonfiction writing now than ever before, I believe it is also true that we are in a kind of golden age of the genre. Reading this list, for better (Being Mortal, Unbroken), and certainly for worse (Yes Please, The Boys in the Boat), was my attempt to understand better the trends in popular nonfiction.
A worry masquerading as a koan: If the independent Republic of Letters is colonized by a foreign power, and no one notices, does it still exist? Did it ever?
10. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe
Randall Munroe’s What If? is a book of cartoons that rigorously investigates issues like the possibility of hitting a baseball traveling at 90 percent the speed of light. It is cute and unapologetically smart. Most of the questions have already been answered on the author’s website and are being reprinted in the current volume. In other words, it isn’t a book so much as an anthology, a repository of a series of internet cartoons in dead-tree form. What If? is really an amuse-bouche of a work, meant to be digested in bits and pieces. It is, if one is being honest, high-minded bathroom reading.
Moreover, despite its very complex subject matter, the book is at its core a whimsical endeavor. Science-minded readers are allowed to have their fun too, of course — even if we don’t necessarily share the same idea of a good time. (I personally find the insouciant style of physics pedagogy found in What If? to be rather dull, but then again I was always a difficult convert to the natural sciences.) Munroe is obviously a man of high intellectual capabilities, and it’s hard to begrudge his ability to make obscure mathematical calculations exciting to some larger percentage of the wider populace. But it’s also notable that the only work entirely devoted to science in the top-10 list (Being Mortal is partially a work of science, but also far more than that) is a book of cartoons. This in a world where many matters of science, most notably those related to climate change (the greatest scientific problem in human history), are of the utmost urgency.
9. 41: A Portrait of My Father, George W. Bush
The moment when one must contend with the essential unreliability of the narrator of 41 comes rapidly, a mere 19 pages into the book. Writing of his father’s service as a pilot in World War II — where George H. W. Bush narrowly escaped death after being shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire in the South Pacific — George W. Bush recounts H. W.’s first flight, during his domestic military training:
It was in an open-cockpit Stearman N2S-3 at Wold-Chamberlain Naval Air Base in Minneapolis in 1942. The cadets called the plane the “Yellow Peril,” because it was painted yellow and could prove perilous to fly. [my italics]
Now: one can approach this statement, delivered so matter-of-factly, in one of two ways. Either W. is being slyly disingenuous, and is engaging in a kind of dog-whistle politics; or he is frightfully ignorant, and is at his core a credulous man who lacks the good sense to “trust, but verify” (as Reagan was fond of saying) what has been relayed to him, especially by his elders. (Come to think of it, actually, this pretty much captures the interpretive difficulties of the entire George W. Bush presidency.)
Either way, it should make one leery of taking 41, which is closer to hagiography than biography, too seriously. That’s not to say there isn’t much of interest in the book — read as a psychological profile of a man (who happened to become president) mounting an extended apologia and paean to his father (who also happened to become president), it’s actually quite rich, in both senses of the word.
H. W. has indeed had an extraordinary life — he comes from a wealthy and powerful Eastern family (the Bush’s are from Greenwich, Connecticut, and still summer at their compound in coastal Maine), was the son of a senator, a World War II pilot, Texas oilman, congressman, former chairman of the RNC, chief diplomat to China, ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA, two-term vice president, and one-term president. He is also the father to a two-term president and former governor of Florida. For those of us concerned with the effect of dynastic politics on the health of our republic, the tentacle-like reach of the Bush family is deeply unsettling. (This is not a partisan jab at Jeb, by the way: a Bush/Clinton contest in 2016 would be evidence of the worst kind of democratic atavism.)
How does one man ascend to such rarified heights, especially in the cutthroat world of politics? Why, by just being a nice, friendly, loyal, hardworking guy, by golly, says George W. Bush (Andover, Yale, Harvard). In his son’s rose-tinted version of his ascent, all the political positions H. W. held through his long life were based on principle. Leading the Republican Party in Houston in the early 1960s, H. W. was forced to confront members of the putrid John Birch Society, an important constituency within the party in Texas at the time. Now, W. writes, even though his father did not like the Birchers, “diplomacy was [his] first instinct, and he tried hard to bring the Birchers into the fold. He instructed the party leadership to stop referring to Birchers as ‘nuts,’ and he appointed Birch Society members to chair several important precincts.” Only after he realized he could not co-opt the Birchers did he alter his strategy of “diplomacy.” (I would never expect W. to acknowledge this, but the real swamp of radicalism in the US in the early 1960s was Texas — especially Dallas, where, for example, then-UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson was attacked by an angry mob a month before the JFK assassination.)
In what I strongly suspect was a cynical effort to cater to racist whites, H. W. ran for the Senate on a platform opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act on “states’ rights” grounds — a political position that ranks among the most specious arguments ever conceived for rationalizing a system of legal apartheid. In 1968, and then a Congressman — the 1964 Senate campaign failed — H. W. switched positions and voted for the Fair Housing Act. George W. attributes this to his father’s visit to integrated troops in Vietnam; he does not mention the law was passed a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a period when many believed that a national descent into chaos was possible, even likely. (Post-assassination rioting occurred in over 100 cities.)
The picture presented of H. W. is so dignified that it seems to preclude the possibility of real cunning. While chairman of the RNC during the Nixon presidency, he defended Nixon against mounting evidence of the latter’s knowledge of the Watergate cover-up, because he “always believed the best of people, [and] trusted the President when he gave his word.” In one of several moments of extreme cognitive dissonance in the book, W. writes that he “was shocked that the President had surrounded himself with people who acted like the law didn’t apply to them.” But even when evidence of Nixon’s guilt seemed undeniable, H. W. did not publicly call for his resignation, since “[he] saw little point in ‘piling on,’ as he put it.” Thus, what might have been a political strategy on the part of H. W. — to help cement the loyalty of party stalwarts to him, should he, say, run for elective office again — becomes, in W.’s telling, a matter of noblesse oblige.
The dissembling reaches fever pitch later in the book, when W. addresses the Iran-Contra scandal, which took place when his father was vice president, and the infamous Willie Horton ad, which ran during his 1988 presidential campaign. Of the former, W. writes that even though “Congress had outlawed arms sales to state sponsors of terrorism, one of which was Iran,” and that H. W. “was aware of the arms sales,” he was innocent, because “he knew nothing about the diversion of funds to the Contras.” Still, “he knew the press and his political opponents would try hard to wrap him into the scandal.” Am I missing something?
As for the race-baiting Horton ad, Bush notes that it was run by an outside, independent group, without the approval of the campaign. Not only that: even though H. W.’s campaign was running other ads denouncing Michael Dukakis’s prison furlough program, he writes that the Horton ad “infuriated” his father. But in an October 25, 1988 article in the Times, H. W.’s reaction seems markedly different: “There isn’t any racism,” he declared about his campaign, while aboard Air Force Two. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.” Still, why ruin a nice outing by “piling on”? In the end, he told the assembled reporters, he stood “fully behind” the Willie Horton ad. You won’t grasp this from the maudlin account of his life offered to us by his eldest son, or in the soft-focus biopic that might make its way to basic cable, but George H. W. Bush was the rare patrician fox who seems to have convinced his son, at least, that he was just a lumbering ol’ hedgehog.
8. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande
Being Mortal is among the most unapologetically adult books on the list, investigating the changing ways America, and the wealthy world more generally, has dealt with old age, infirmity, and dying. “The experiment of making mortality a medical experience is just decades old,” he writes. “It is young. And the evidence is it is failing.” How a society faces death says much about what it values in life; our cold, mechanistic, alienating attitude toward dying is a reflection of our own childish confusion on the topic.
As Gawande observes, when it comes to mortality, modern society has been shaken by a duel revolution that is both biological, in that we live far longer, and cultural, in how we think about death. Dying of old age used to be the exception, not the rule: it was extremely rare and was in fact considered unnatural. But technological developments, demographic shifts (there are far more elderly people on the planet than ever before), and increased lifespans have changed the social valuing of old age.
In the mid-1940s, most Americans still died at home. By the 1980s, fewer than 20 percent did. Mass construction of hospitals began in the United States only after World War II, with 9,000 partially financed by Congress between 1946 and 1966. Nursing homes were developed in order to open up hospital beds; they were a stopgap measure for those too poor to pay for care or without family to assume the burden. No one was really sure what to do with the aged and infirm. Eventually, this system became institutionalized, leaving “our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.”
Gawande identifies a few key areas for improvement. More and better geriatricians are desperately needed — their pay is low (for doctors) and the work isn’t particularly prestigious, but they can vastly improve the day-to-day lives of the elderly. Studies show that regular visits to the geriatrician lead to less depression in the elderly, and such patients are 40 percent less likely to need “home health services.” Perversely, Gawande observes, many insurance plans — including, crucially, Medicare — do not fully cover geriatric care, even though they may cover procedures like heart surgery. Geriatric medicine is often focused on managing a variety of symptoms, not curing a single malady. But old age is itself a malady. Our body naturally breaks down over time, and doctors who specialize on mitigating the suffering caused by these processes can do extraordinary work.
The broader and more complex question investigated by Gawande is how to make life worth living — even for those sick or dying, whatever age they may be. Dying in a hospital rarely fulfills these needs. Foregoing expensive and often excruciating treatments in a hospital doesn’t mean one has “given up” or unnecessarily shortened one’s life; in fact, studies show that hospice patients often live longer with a terminal illness than those who take the more invasive, surgical route. In an encouraging trend, Gawande writes that in 2010 45 percent of Americans died in hospice — a reversal of long-term trends back into dying at home.
The process of dying does not obliterate concerns about quality of life; dying, after all, is a part of that life. It is, perhaps counterintuitively, the time when we must consider those needs most intensely. In Being Mortal, Gawande has given us an empathetic, wise, and learned work on a necessary topic. This book deserves its wide readership, and that wide readership deserves this book.
7. Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned,” Lena Dunham
A conundrum. What topic could be more exhausted, more overdetermined for a certain class of individuals on both coasts, than the one surrounding Lena Dunham? The whole conversation seems one extended trigger warning: Brooklyn, psychotherapy, Oberlin, Soho, sparkling surnames (Kirke, Mamet, Williams), self-pity, self-loathing, self-discovery, self-indulgence, artistic indulgence, private schools, summer homes in Litchfield County, the NY Times Style Section (which Dunham was featured in for hosting a “vegan dinner party” — lord help me — when she was 17). All of which seem like pawns in a wider culture war that is really of interest only to a very small, very self-involved group. (I am a child of the NY suburbs, went to a small liberal arts college, and am writing this in a literary review, so connect the dots.)
In a sense, it is a shame that Not That Kind of Girl did not precede Tiny Furniture or Girls, so that the image of “Lena Dunham” was not yet there, to occlude or transpose itself over Lena Dunham, author of this book. For Dunham writes magnificently in places; she is capable of deft shifts in emotional register, often in the same sentence; she is bitingly, slyly humorous; there are moments of preternatural self-awareness and even a kind of large-hearted emotional kindness. But there are also many instances of enervation, where the sustained introspection turns tiresome and the litany of neuroses overwhelming. The book is uneven, lagging particularly in the middle, and one wonders if Dunham will be able to sustain this kind of emotional intensity in her writing forever (for who would wish it to persist perpetually in our lives?). Confessional literature of this kind is a nonrenewable resource. As I’m sure David Sedaris knows well, there are only so many quirky, didactic stories about childhood and — in Dunham’s case — our extended adolescence that one can profitably draw from. It cannot be celebrated, or denigrated, forever.
Not That Kind of Girl surveys a wide number of topics. These include self-respect (“being treated like shit is not an amusing game or a transgressive intellectual experiment”); sex (on her first time: “he was nervous, and in a nod to gender equality, neither of us came”; looking back, she observes “how permanent virginity feels, and then how inconsequential”); her education (she “switched schools in seventh grade, to an institution whose values aligned with [her] own”); and post-college life in Manhattan (where “nothing was a tragedy, and everything was a joke,” in a subtle nod to Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”).
Dunham strikes me as exhausted and — it seems her parents would agree, as she is aware — occasionally exhausting. A deep emotional disquiet pervades her work. She also exudes a kind of privileged ambivalence, and by this I mean something more basic than her ability to fail, than money’s cossetting effect. From infancy she has absorbed a cultural grammar that can then be taken for granted, something approaching a native tongue. Those who learn these codes and signals later in life do so as nonnative speakers. Meghan Daum captures this perfectly in a passage from My Misspent Youth:
Though there were lots of different kinds of kids at Vassar, I immediately found the ones who had grown up in Manhattan, and I learned most of what I felt I needed to know by socializing with them. In this way, my education was primarily about becoming fully versed in a certain set of references that, individually, have very little to do with either a canon of knowledge as defined by academia or preparation for the job market. My education had mostly to do with speaking the language of the culturally sophisticated, with having a mastery over a number of points of cultural trivia ranging from the techniques of Caravaggio to the discography of The Velvet Underground.
All that Daum — no child of disadvantage herself — hungered for was Dunham’s birthright, her patrimony, the protective field she both inhabits and is sheltered by. It gives her work its force; it also gives it its nettlesome unreality.
Still, viewed as a document and catalog of that uneasy transition into adulthood, or as a guide to the social or sexual perplexities of adolescence, or simply as an exemplar of the wider genre of which it is a part, Not That Kind of Girl is a success. Was it, however, “worth” the reported $3.7 million advance it received? How would it have been — would it have been — reviewed if “Lena Dunham” were simply Lena Dunham? And could it be true, in a sad yet utterly believable moment, that, prior to a dreamlike evening in London in her mid-twenties she describes in the book, she had “never talked to anyone my own age about anything beyond ambition”? If you have to ask the question, well: you don’t know the wrong kind of people.
6. Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General, Bill O’Reilly with Martin Dugard
Continuing his morbid obsession with the death of historical figures he admires (O’Reilly has already written books entitled Killing Jesus and Killing Lincoln), O’Reilly here decides to focus on General George Patton, a significantly less laudable figure than his two previous subjects. As Richard Cohen reports in The Washington Post, O’Reilly never once mentions that Patton, who was put in charge of displaced persons camps for Holocaust survivors, was deeply anti-Semitic, and that this materially affected the way he administered to survivors’ needs. As Cohen notes, Patton once wrote with incredulity about those who feel “that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to Jews who are lower than animals.” O’Reilly doesn’t mention any of these irksome facts in this book, which he may not have actually written (“with Martin Dugard”). Whoops!
5. Yes Please, Amy Poehler
Amy Poehler’s Yes Please is a thick, glossy book whose heavy paper stock cannot compensate for its essential triviality. As Poehler even admits of Yes Please, she wrote the book “ugly and in pieces.” Writing, she claims to now realize, is actually quite difficult, and completing the book was really troubling and bothersome. I know how she feels; I read a lot of it on a plane and longed for an open window.
Yes, Please is ostensibly a series of reminiscences about her life — from her childhood in a lower-middle-class Massachusetts suburb, to her time honing her improv skills in Chicago (the most vivid part of the book), to her work co-founding the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York in the 1990s, to her recollections of being a cast member on Saturday Night Live, to her experience with pregnancy and motherhood. But there is no real narrative thread at all. The book wavers back and forth, unable to develop coherently.
For a memoir of sorts, Yes, Please also curiously skirts any moments of real emotional revelation. She doesn’t “want to talk about my divorce because it is too sad and too personal. I also don’t like people knowing my shit.” Fine: a totally respectable, even admirable, position. But don’t write a book about your life! She seems to strain to not really disclose anything particularly personal. Her time in New York with the influential Upright Citizens Brigade “could fill a book. Hopefully someone else will write it, because writing a book is awful and because most of my memories are drug fueled and rose colored.” On being cast in Wet Hot American Summer, the most brilliantly campy movie ever made about, ahem, a camp, she writes only that it was “a film whose behind-the-scenes stories would make for a steamy beach read.” In such moments, one feels as if an implicit promise of truth-telling between reader and memoirist has been broken. I wasn’t expecting My Struggle, but this?
Yes, Please also treats the reader to a torrent of clichés, ham-handed metaphors, and flaccid allusions. For your amusement, I have assembled a few favorites: “our parents surround us with origin stories that create deep grooves in the vinyl records of our lives”; “I try to believe what Annie from Annie says, when she reminds us that tomorrow is only a day away”; “I want to go gentle into that good night, so help me God” (I could be wrong, but I don’t think that Dylan Thomas was raging against his Sealy Posturepedic); “I felt my whole life stretched out before me like an invisible buffet”; “I was out of the restaurant business but I still had my appetite. I turned toward my future, mouth watering”; “emotions are like passing storms, and you have to remind yourself that it won’t rain forever”; “my life was an open suitcase and my clothes were strewn all over the street”; and so on, until one wavers between a state of somnolence and one of pronounced agitation.
Incidentally, the book is a good example of a common fallacy about popular nonfiction writing in particular: that if one is prodigiously talented in another domain — especially if that talent involves entertainment, conceived of broadly — than one must have something interesting to write about the world or one’s own life. To see how foolish and widespread this premise is, just imagine the opposite case: where, say, someone like Gary Shteyngart, a brilliant comedic writer, believed he ipso facto deserved a shot at Second City. This would be seen as laughable, yet the idea that anyone famous can or should write a book is somehow considered natural.
4. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Daniel James Brown
About halfway through Boys in the Boat, which chronicles the University of Washington’s eight-man rowing team and its trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, I wagered that the book had already been optioned for a movie. There’s pure young love, financial hardship, the kind of “rugged individualism” that in 2015 is mostly a social delusion used for ideological purposes, a cruel stepmother, intensely competitive high-stakes sporting events, and Nazis. It’s awash in nostalgia and uncomplicated moral clarity; it must have been utter catnip for studio executives. And voila! The Weinstein Company snatched up the rights back in 2011. Peter Berg (Battleship, Friday Night Lights) now seems to be attached as director.
The story revolves around a young man named Joe Rantz, who grows up in a small town in Depression-era Washington State. He has an itinerant and irresponsible father and his mother dies when he is a boy. His father remarries a shrewish, much younger woman who despises Joe because he reminds his father of his prior life. By the time he is a teenager, Joe’s family has left him to fend for himself. Joe scrapes by, eventually gets into university, joins the rowing team, has continuing money troubles, displays a great facility for the sport, and competes widely across the United States. In Poughkeepsie, where a major race was held every year, 90,000 people witnessed the 1936 regatta — one thing I did not realize was just how popular rowing was at this time. He then travels to Berlin, wins the gold, gives Hitler dyspepsia, returns home, marries his childhood sweetheart, the end.
Tonally, the book seems to strive for an affected and nostalgic mood — a whitewashed approximation of a bygone, romanticized time that likely never existed. The characters appear to be curiously two-dimensional, and seem to lack a sophisticated interior life. Whether this is a deficiency in Brown’s storytelling or is indicative of the dullness of the actual protagonists, I can’t say for sure, but the book suffers from stock phrases: Joe’s inamorata Joyce is a “pretty slip of a girl”; a crew coach’s “style of dress sent a simple message: that he was the boss, and that he was all business”; even though the crew team visits Manhattan during an infernal summer, “the boys weren’t going to let a little heat keep them from taking a bite of the Big Apple.” Chapter 1 literally begins with a variation of “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night […].”: “Monday, October 9, 1933, began as a gray day in Seattle. A gray day in a gray time.”
This two-dimensional treatment extends to the often unnecessary “jumps” (I can see the fade-ins already) to Nazi preparations for the Olympics. The book focuses on Leni Riefenstahl (who, Brown writes, “displayed an indomitable will to succeed,” wink, wink) and Joseph Goebbels. The Nazis play their foreordained role as antagonists, albeit from a great distance — after all, it’s only the mid-1930s and most of the book is set in Washington State — so the power of the contrast feels attenuated and forced, like the author felt the need to run the narratives on two parallel tracks in order to amplify the effect of their inevitable convergence during the book’s climax in Berlin.
Speaking of climax, the book is also curiously prudish. Of a crew member’s fear of losing a big race, expressed spontaneously in the middle of a competition, all Brown can muster is that “he flung the F word into the wind.” Although the book focuses on a group of varsity college athletes, with all the prurient interest that this would normally imply, there is no sex, or even hint of sex, throughout most of the book. It takes nearly 200 pages to get some mention of it, and even then it is in a passing reference to the world’s oldest profession, and the Boys’ lack of interest in such earthly delights.
And yet, by the workings of some obscure Freudian mechanism, Brown proves himself the master of the double entendre, which allows sex — of a sort — to seep back into the book. Of an Old West town Joe temporarily inhabits to make money during the summer, Brown writes, “it was a wet, dusky world; a world dominated by big trees, big trucks, and big men. […] Beefy lumberjacks in thick flannel shirts and hobnailed boots strutted up and down the main street.” A section of the book entitled “The Parts that Really Matter” is followed by one called “Touching the Divine.” And Al Ulbrickson, the laconic coach of the Washington rowing team, is curiously described as a man who “wasn’t one to waste a lot of time trying to figure out a touchy kid’s tender spots.” Whatever subtext is or isn’t here, it likely won’t make the final cut. Well, come to think of it, the book could be reworked to conform to a certain favored style of Hollywood’s — one focused on sexually unthreatening male love and bonding of the platonic (not to say Platonic) sort — that is, the Bromance.
3. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed
In Wild (now a movie starring Reese Witherspoon, who stares off longingly into the distance on the cover of my copy of the book), Cheryl Strayed recounts an arduous emotional and physical journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) during the summer of 1995.
The book has been so popular for so long that it feels at this point like some kind of cultural touchstone. It tapped into a kind of subconscious yearning on the part of a certain demographic, a group that may not be as fretful about Having It All as much as merely Getting Away From It All — the kids, the job, the sunken and dejected faces on the morning train, the endless, hive-like repetition of tasks that defines adulthood. I recall seeing the book cover splashed all over the side of a bus stop in Midtown Manhattan, about as incongruous a place one can find oneself transported to a Sierra Nevadas of the mind. And that, I think, is precisely the point.
But what I didn’t realize until I actually read Wild is that — not only is it a very good example of the literature of travel and self-discovery (an old form of writing, to be sure: the lugubrious Japanese monk-poet Matsuo Basho showed mastery of the genre in the 17th century) — the book’s success can also be understood as resulting from its structure as a tale of mourning and resilience. These are two powerful archetypes of nonfiction storytelling, and even when the writing, considered as literature, isn’t particularly compelling (Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, for instance, is among the weakest of all her nonfiction works, but has sold quite briskly), the objective isn’t necessarily beauty or truth: it’s catharsis.
Wild can be judged partially from this perspective — not as a work of art per se, but from its power to provide this experience for the reader (and, of course, for the writer herself — although this is totally unrelated to the piece’s literary or commercial value). I cannot speak to this aspect of the book personally, but I can certainly imagine why, in this regard, the book was greeted so rapturously. Happily, however, Wild shows this segregation of style and purpose to be something of a false choice, or at least a surmountable obstacle. Strayed is a beguiling writer, and Wild has many moments of real pathos and beauty. She carries you with her rather effortlessly on her arduous journey; you feel as if you are swept up with her; you often lose yourself in her narrative. She is also quite funny and at times even arch, although this dimension of her writing (and I suspect her personality) does not shine as brightly in Wild as I wish it would.
Wild is the story of Strayed’s devastation after her mother’s untimely death when Strayed is only in her mid-twenties. “It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother would die,” she writes. “She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life.” Strayed grew up in decent poverty with an indecent, violent, and eventually absent, father. She writes of her mother with an almost religious reverence (“her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned. Every day she blew through her entire reserve”); losing someone about whom you feel so powerfully seems akin to experiencing a star explode from its interior. This rupture leads, or at least expedites, the dissolution of her marriage, after a series of rapid-fire infidelities on Strayed’s part. Divorced in her mid-twenties and nearly broke, Strayed starts dating a junkie in Portland and dabbling with heroin. This is the emotional and financial backdrop to Strayed’s decision to hike the PCT.
Contrary to my initial expectations, Strayed does not hike the whole PCT, or even close to it — she enters the trail hundreds of miles from its terminus on the Mexico border, and for weather-related reasons — a huge snowpack year, which she quickly realizes is an immense danger to her — she bypasses almost all of the High Sierra. She concludes her hike on the Oregon-Washington border, missing the final 500 miles of the trail through Washington to Canada. At first I felt this was a deficiency to the work, a false promise, but that judgment was hasty. I came to realize that the Pacific Crest Trail is not — and simultaneously is — really the subject of Wild; the true subject is Strayed herself. Or perhaps this is also another false dichotomy, and I’ve missed the point. As she observes, in a moment of reflective clarity, “Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.” Basho — who, as a Buddhist monk, knew a few things about sublimating dichotomies — would agree. As he writes in his luminous travelogue Narrow Road to the Interior,
The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
Even though these writers are separated by the long traverse of centuries, I think they would both understand what the other set out to do, and why each was so compelled to do it, because theirs is the same, very human, story.
2. American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
American Sniper (now a movie starring Bradley Cooper, who stares off inscrutably into the distance on the cover of my copy of the book, an American flag fluttering away in the foreground) reads like the transcription of a series of oral interviews between Chris Kyle and his two co-authors. It details Kyle’s tenure as a Navy SEAL in Iraq from 1999–2009, where he fought in pitched battles in Fallujah, Ramadi, and the Baghdad slum of Sadr City. Kyle was an expert sniper: indeed, by official counts, he holds the record for most official kills — around 160 — in the history of the US military. Kyle claims the real number is considerably higher. He once picked off an insurgent in Iraq from 2,100 yards away, more than a mile. He showed bravery on the battlefield and likely saved numerous of his compatriots’ lives. He saw friends maimed and killed before his eyes. Then, in a tragedy befitting the original Greek conception of the term, Kyle was murdered in 2011 by a fellow veteran suffering from PTSD, whom Kyle and a friend had taken to a gun range for its retrospectively ill-advised therapeutic effects.
None of this tempers the fact that American Sniper is a terrible book — both as a work of “literature” and (in this particular case more importantly) in the context of its moral implications. In a kind of Hobbesian transference from place to man, Kyle comes off as nasty, brutish, and short-witted. (To complicate matters further, upon returning home he might have become something of a serial fabulist.) We don’t ask our scholars to be warriors and we shouldn’t demand our warriors to be scholars, but a rejection of the life of the mind does not entitle one to a mindless life. (The US military, by the way, produces some very fine soldier-scholars, so service per se is neither an excuse nor a hindrance to thought: I know of a few men at West Point whom I very strongly suspect might find Kyle’s writing and conduct embarrassing in many places; I would also love to learn Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey’s uncensored opinion of the book — Dempsey earned a master’s degree in English literature from Duke.)
Kyle is a stereotypical good ol’ boy, a Texas chauvinist who privileges “God, Country, Family,” in that order. He refers to his Iraqi antagonists as “savages.” He writes that he’d rather live in Virginia than San Diego, since “Southern California is the land of nuts.”
Kyle does not seem to possess the capacity for sustained self-reflection. This may be to one’s benefit when in a combat situation, but it is deeply detrimental when it comes to, say, consideration about the overall purpose and justice of the Iraq War. He is totally unthinking about the relationship, or lack thereof, between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The distinction between the two is completely elided throughout the book; in fact, it is ignored altogether.
He is disdainful and ignorant of Iraqis, the people who actually live in the country he is trying to pacify: “I went to war for my country, not Iraq. My country sent me out there so that bullshit wouldn’t make its way back to our shores. I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.” He believed the insurgency arose “because we weren’t Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we’d just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did.” An accurate enough description of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliated groups, perhaps, but this is a totally spurious characterization of the Baathist elements of the insurgency, which were largely secular and focused on reclaiming lost spoils, not founding a theocracy.
His grasp on Sunni-Shia relations is elementary. He repeats the widespread falsehood that in Iraq “the two groups coexisted but generally hated each other.” In fact, prewar Iraq had one of the highest rates of intermarriages in the Middle East — a little less than 1/3 of the total in Iraq, for a total of 2 million families that were mixed Sunni-Shia. The sectarian dynamic — and all the horrific bloodletting it caused — took over after the invasion and was partially caused by it. Kyle does not seem to grasp how the American presence fomented this unrest.
His reaction to religious fanaticism is to become more fanatical: “At one point, I told the Army colonel, ‘I don’t shoot people with Korans — I’d like to, but I don’t.’ I guess I was a little hot.” After some combat, he has a “crusader cross” — red, “for blood,” of course, tattooed onto his arm, because he “wanted everyone to know I was a Christian.” Insurgents did eventually learn to identify him by his tattoo; I’m sure it helped ingratiate Kyle and his compatriots to Iraqi civilians with winnable loyalties.
Moreover, he seems truly untroubled, even gleeful, about the actual act of killing: if he didn’t have a family to take care of, he writes, he’d “be back in a heartbeat. I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” Yet his disdain for the laws of combat and military hierarchy is palpable.
Without a hint of self-reproach — indeed, with something occasionally approaching insouciance — Kyle recounts his many bar fights; by the end of the book I’d lost count, and I fear so had he. (All’s well that ends well for him and his fellow SEALs, though, since “as a general rule the charges were either never filed or quickly dismissed.” Funny how that works.) He seems slightly more contrite about his dangerous-sounding post-deployment road rage, but not much. In times of war, abroad, this man is inarguably an asset; at home, what are we to make of this propensity for violence?
Kyle ultimately brings to mind an old American archetype, that of the “wooden man” lambasted by Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience”:
The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, gaolers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.
These men, Thoreau writes, are “a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity.” That was what Kyle became, and that is what we are “celebrating” when we vote with our wallets to buy this book or watch this movie, and whether he would have agreed with me or not — and I am confident he would have viscerally, violently detested all I have just written — it is disrespectful to his memory, and to the many living shadows we have carelessly twisted into being.
1. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand
Last (first), but certainly not least, is Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which has sat on the bestseller list for 190 straight weeks. The book is about one man’s indomitable will to survive a series of almost unbelievable trials. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic runner whose plane went down over the South Pacific while he was part of a crew conducting a search-and-rescue mission during World War II. Zamperini and two other crash survivors float 2,000 miles westward on a life raft, nearly starve to death, beat back numerous shark attacks, and take fire from Japanese fighter pilots, only to be captured by the Japanese upon reaching land. Zamperini is then subjected to torture, starvation, and slavery in a series of Japanese camps under a regime of sociopaths, most notably an official nicknamed “The Bird,” who almost redefines the possibilities for cruelty. Although there is no Penelope driving his return home, Zamperini’s trials are a kind of nonfiction 20th-century American Odyssey.
Of the book itself there is not much more to say. It has sold so well that its publishers waited four years to release a paperback edition. Hillenbrand is a wonderful writer, able to synthesize vast amounts of information without appearing pedantic. She knows how to balance her protagonist’s amazing story with a wealth of social and cultural context that gives Unbroken some real historical heft, enriching it far beyond its biographical core.
It is also very well positioned for adaptation to the big screen and, indeed, opened to wide release in late 2014 in a movie directed by Angelina Jolie. The book begins with a moment of maximum drama that takes place halfway through the narrative, then quickly circles back to Zamperini’s childhood; this is a beguiling way to start the book, film-like in its approach. (According to the screenplay, the writers chose a different scene to “flash-forward” to that I think is actually less suited for the film’s opening sequence.) Because Hillenbrand is so talented, and because she chooses her subjects judiciously, when she has the helm, her form of storytelling succeeds brilliantly.
But this may not be true in the case of her successors. I admit that when I started reading Unbroken I had the strangest feelings of déjà vu. The 1936 Olympics, summaries of a given day’s newspaper headlines or major cultural events, asides about the weather, relatively short, declarative sentences with minimal punctuation: yes, this was Boys in the Boat! But while that book takes 400 pages to get to the Olympics, Unbroken is through with Zamperini’s running career by page 40; her story hasn’t even begun to simmer.
As it turns out, the similarity between the books is more than coincidence. In a profile of Hillenbrand in the NY Times Magazine, Brown shares that he picked apart Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit page-by-page to study why her writing is so successful. What an unusually talented writer like Hillenbrand is able to make cohere is not likely to be true of her acolytes, whom I suspect will be many.
What should a work of nonfiction be? There is no easy answer, no single discernable set of criteria to rely on. Since the idea of “nonfiction” is itself so capacious — and since it is defined by what it is not — it resists basic attempts at classification. But this messiness or uncertainty is liberating, because it allows for greater maneuvering, experimentation, honesty, even daring. After reading Gay Talese, Philip Gourevitch, Hannah Arendt, Robert Caro, James Agee, George Orwell, Joan Didion, or Richard Hofstadter, how can one’s horizons, let alone one’s sense of literary and intellectual possibility, remain static? What a rude, brilliant mess writers like these make of our world: they can distill it to its infinitesimal core, until the smallest details take on a kind of extreme density and significance; but they can also help us grasp life’s abject immensity, its fundamental mysteriousness and absurdity. How prosaic they can make it all, and how profound.
There isn’t exactly an excess of profundity to be found on the bestseller list, sure, but there’s more than enough — significantly more, admittedly, than I expected to find. In Hillenbrand, Dunham, and Strayed, most notably, there are many passages filled with elegant, shimmering prose. In Gawande there is even a kind of timeless wisdom. But this list also seems to mirror many of our own worst cultural tendencies: including frivolity (Munroe), banality (Brown, Poehler), obscurantism (Bush, O’Reilly), and even bellicosity and ugliness (Kyle). Reading this list has felt like a kind of window into the compromise about what we agree to value, a journey through a judgment-free zone where sales totals are both a means and an end in themselves.
Compromise: now that, at least in theory, is a cardinal democratic value. But comity has its limits, and excessive compromise, especially in art, can degrade the form and be degrading to the practitioner. If books are written to be consumed passively, or are treated primarily as entertainment objects, or are aimed at the broadest possible readership without any sense of whom the “public” even is, the most diligent attempts at elevating such work to the status of art will be fruitless. I believe we have to strive to square the circle, to nurture and protect a writing culture that is both broad-minded and high-minded, aware of the inevitable tensions that will arise between these two ideals. We might succeed at this task, but we might also fail. Who would have imagined it: that there may be a story, about our stories, that we tell ourselves in order to live.
Zach Dorfman is senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of Carnegie Council. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, The Awl, Dissent, The American Interest, and elsewhere.
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