December 14, 2006

A novelist over a policy wonk anyday

In the comments to the post below, I explained why I'd gulp if a girl I was interested in told me that her favorite writer was a novelist. I didn't mean to suggest that I would've held a low opinion of her forever -- maybe she'd turn out to be an exception -- but her answer would be a red flag. However, after reading two related posts of Razib's at Gene Expression (one, two), I should like to ammend my original statement: I would breathe a sigh of relief if a girl counted a novelist as her favorite writer, considering the even more deplorable dreck she could be reading, such as bestselling books on public or foreign policy. Hackneyed novels never hurt anyone in the way that cheerleading policy books will contribute to the harm and ruin of others.

Now that State and Church are separate, bestselling policy wonks fill the void left by the defunct office of "spiritual advisor" to the leader: amass as many factoids as possible in support of the belief that the leader is wise and benevolent. The more baroque the constellation of factoids, the better: for it requires real engineering skill to keep all the holes in the argument, where other less convenient facts would appear, from throwing the entire contraption off-balance like a poorly constructed mobile. This sorcery also secures the spiritual advisor's permanent place at the leader's side, since master bullshit artists are not easily replaced.

It's no wonder, then, that people rarely bother to read history and policy books in their free time as opposed to books on science, math, music, art, etc. Sure, there's some bullshit and obfuscation in the science & math section of the bookstore (Stephen Jay Gould's anti-"Darwinian fundamentalist" blather comes to mind). But overall the authors are reliably good at trying to understand and communicate the truth of their subject matter. And regardless of what the critics like, you can flip through the books in the art section and find stuff whose excellence you easily recognize and enjoy. Most of the history / policy section, though, is a graveyard of miscarried attempts at understanding; and what's not hokum isn't easily distinguished without reading everything and comparing. You'd have to have a friend "in the know" to recommend history books if you wanted to navigate your way through all the sewage.*

In the end, it's probably too idealistic to expect a girl to answer John Donne or Richard Dawkins as her preferred author (to hint at how broad of a variety of answers would make me happy). Therefore -- and this is particularly true in the DC metro area -- I actually wouldn't mind it if a girl I liked mentioned that her favorite book was Their Eyes Were Watching God, considering that she could've easily responded with Thomas Friedman's latest disquisition, Volume XVI of the collected Op-Eds of Maureen Dowd, or some self-help tractatus on giving yourself permission.

*I have found the popular works of William McNeill to be a helpful guide in attaining a rough picture of human history.


  1. I know how that one is.
    I once read a bunch of history books on the Byzantine Empire later to find out the author was a hobby-horser.

    It's fairly telling that even in my given field which is tangentially related to history I couldn't give you a full accounting of what's good and bad.

    Oh and here's something scary. One of my favorite novels is "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Marquez. Ostensibly a rather high end peice of lit, but apparently it ended up on Oprah's Book Club next to whatever load she's read and suddenly it's the "It" book to read, and new editions come out with "Oprah's Book Club" permanently affixed to the cover. It doesn't bug me so much that it's been popularized, but more the fact that now there are legions of marginally intelligent hausfrau who when I mention my favorite books proceed to give me a mangled account of the meaning of the book like they've now got a double Master's in Latin American fiction and Columbian History.

    It really makes me wonder sometimes if we should be encouraging people to read with the byline that you're now "educated" because you read a book about something or by someone.

    That's double the case with these policy pundit pulp hashes.

  2. That's double the case with these policy pundit pulp hashes.

    Right: then the person walks around ignorant but bold, like they've now got a crystal ball. _The Coming Anarchy_, etc.

  3. Oh no, a novelist. What's this world coming to?

    There's nothing wrong with pulp fiction, neither is it mutually exclusive to reading nonfiction or literary fiction.

    In in time, Shakespeare was considered lowbrow entertainment and yet today we find lasting value in it.

    I can at least agree with you that political punditry is useless.


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