Saturday, December 19, 2009

Worst Books of 2009! Nonfiction!

Worst Nonfiction of 2009:

The American Civil War by John Keegan - I admit, I wasn't the first person on the scene of this particularly horrible highway accident. I was still waiting for my copy of Keegan's book (enthused, as who wouldn't be, because the man has written some of the best works of military history in the last century) when the first rumors of its, er, shortcomings began to reach my ears. I picked up a copy of the book from a bookstore display table one day and handed it to a friend who's a Civil War scholar, saying "I haven't read this yet, but I'm hearing that it's got some problems - what do you think?" He took it, flipped to the three-page account of one battle he knows really well, and took a couple of minutes to read it. And then he looked up, aghast. And then I read the epic plank-by-plank destruction the book received in the New York Times. And finally I read it myself. And was aghast. Long lists of facts wrong - days, dates, casualty lists, physical locations, names - and worse by far than that (although the sheer extent of that made it inexcusable), horrible misunderstandings of the war and its meanings, sophomoric misunderstandings, on virtually every page. So Keegan has another accolade: he's written the single worst book on the American Civil War by a major historian. Now all I want to know is how the thing got into print.

9. Imperial Cruise by James Bradley - I guess I always knew a travesty like this was brewing with Bradley. The hugely overpraised Flags of Our Fathers was a curio draped in just enough autobiography to make it both unassailable and unimportant, and Flyboys, inestimably helped by the heroism of its subject, made for good-enough reading. I guess I always worried that the acclaim Bradley received from both those books might go to his head and make him forget that he's not actually a historian, just a professional sentimentalist. And in Imperial Cruise, hoo-boy, does he forget. This hyperventilating account of how "Teddy" (on every goddam page) Roosevelt and "Big Bill" (on every goddam page) Taft did all sorts of illegal things in order to placate ruthless Japan is aggravating junk from the very first page, a clanking, ugly collection of snide remarks, scandalous insults to the memory of two very good men, and gross misreadings of the primary sources, all of it absolutely smothered in just the kind of distorting hindsight trained historians are careful to eliminate from their work. Two pieces of urgent advice: first, don't read this book, and second, if you do read it, don't believe a single word of it.

8. The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose - Even if I hadn't known that Roose was a disciple of the manipulative moron A. J. Jacobs (he of The Year of Living Biblically), I'd have guessed it by the time I got to the end of this moronic, manipulative book about how Roose took a semester off from Brown and spent it at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, studying the Evangelical Christian students there in order to, as Roose continuously lies, learn more about them. What follows is like getting a eunuch to write a bedroom expose - the author does a lot of unconvincing poking around, but he completely misses the point. This is the Jacobsian formula: either take a complex subject and dumb it down until it can be read on a business flight from New York to L.A., or take a simple subject and try your gelded best to make it seem complex. Liberty University is a simple subject: it's a gigantic enclave of sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, evolution-denying reactionary Klansmen-in-training. Roose would shake his head at the persistence of such 'stereotypes'; I shake my head at brainless authors who'll play any kind of dumb in order to get a book contract.

7. Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - I didn't think it was possible for any book to irritate me even more than Freakonomics did, but the authors here proved me wrong - they took their first book, which was already shriekingly dumb, and made it even dumber. Here's page after page filled with faulty logic, unsubstantiated claims, and exactly the kind of pothead anti-logic that manages to be both pointless and dangerous. Pointless because merely reading something so easily disproven is a waste of time, and dangerous because most of the millions of people reading these pieces of crap apparently aren't bothering to disprove any of it. There's a wide stratum of young male readers out there who apparently want the world around them to appear as strange and inexplicable as the darkest Medieval cosmology. Bad enough that such a stratum should exist at all - much worse that carnie barkers like Levitt and Dubner should be so eager to feed it.

6. Byron in Love by Edna O'Brien - The first sign of trouble here came from lining up the book's title with the book's length: Lord Byron was one of the most complex young men who ever left us a mountain of letters and poems, and he strained, fought, and fled from the idea of love for his entire life, quite possibly without ever having once encountered the real thing with another human being (that he encountered it at least a few times with dogs is evident from his poetry, at least to anybody who's also encountered it) - and yet O'Brien's book is barely 180 pages long. There are authors who could cover the subject in such short terrain - Lytton Stratchey could, or Jessica Mitford - but O'Brien sure as Hell isn't one of them. Instead, what she covers - thinly, badly, is a quick tear-sheet of Byronic cliches without a single legitimate insight to recommend this book over the 8,000 better volumes on the subject. If Byron ever was really in love, you'll find not a hint of it here.

5. The Wauchula Woods Accord by Charles Siebert - The premise here - a writer visits a home for retired show business chimps and examines his reactions to them - is so good that the execution is all the more galling. Siebert has done work in the past I've enjoyed, but in this book - this potentially vital, potentially important book (that it has pretension to the latter is evident even from its title) - every trick of his trade just grates. It's never a good sign when you're reading a book wishing the whole time that the author would just shut up and tell the story - but after a couple of chapters of Seibert's nasal, dated wisecracking, you'll not only be wishing that, you'll be wishing it out loud, angrily. When I finished this book, I was filled with the angry sadness that can only come from watching an important subject treated in a shallow, annoying way. Which brings us to!

4. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer - Foer has always been inordinately impressed with his own writing talents; it was that morosely serious cockiness that gave Everything Is Illuminated whatever slender charms it possesses. And for all we know, Foer will ill-advisedly mine that thin vein for the rest of his career - except for this book, a disastrous detour into nonfiction, in which Foer writes like he was the very first person to a) father a child, b) craft a sentence, c) eat a hamburger, or d) research human cruelty to animals. This has two inevitable results: first, it offers a fairly palpable insult to anybody who's ever done a, b, c, or d. And second, it makes for a pretty damn tedious book. It's like listening to an overly-earnest ten-year-old tell you that the sun is actually composed of superheated gas: you're glad the kid's learned something he didn't know, but after about five minutes, you're hoping his parents will take him into another room.

3. The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb - I'd say something like "it's hard to tell which is worse, Crumb's stilted, pretentious introduction or the pages and pages of drawings that follow," but that wouldn't be completely true. The pages and pages of drawings are much, much worse. In his introduction, Crumb trumpets his "research" into the history and visual iconography of early nomadic tribes - but then he spends hundreds of panels drawing caricatures, anachronisms, and the gigantic, vaguely humanoid monsters he always substitutes for women. He likewise trumpets his fidelity to the text of Genesis - then spends the whole book visually undermining that text whenever he gets the chance. In the end, it's a good thing God doesn't read graphic novels (sorry, Kevin); if He did, He'd be even more pissed off than usual.

2. Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer - The closest this deeply, almost sinfully mendacious book comes to a thesis can be summed up like this: DNA, the 'assembly instructions' of living cells, is not the ultimate denial of the existence of God but rather the ultimate assurance of His existence. Using truckloads of fuzzy anecdotes and quasi-science, Meyer does his best to fog over the fact that DNA's journey from chemical process to biochemical process is fairly well documented and will only get more documented as scientific advances continue. When the last of DNA's mysteries are cracked - in ten, maybe five years - Meyer or somebody like him (probably a Liberty grad) will have to write a book exalting another Golden Calf of unobtainability ... and until then, we've got this cowardly little bit of Inquisition advocacy.

1. Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin, The Tyranny of Email by John Freeman - It's natural to lump these two together, since they're basically the exact same shrill screed, offered by the same blue-haired old biddy-bean who's just got too many dang people jabbering at her all the time. Both Helprin and Freeman deplore the effects the Internet and Internet-related technologies are having on the Western mind. People don't concentrate anymore (say the authors of these two fairly lightweight books); people don't research anymore (say the authors of these two obviously Wiki-friendly factoid assemblies); people have lost the simple joy of curling up with a good book (say the authors, even though Helprin hasn't done that in thirty years and Freeman has never done it in even once in his entire life, not even while laid up with a sprained ankle) - and while they're both doing all this hand-waving, the Internet they profess to despise is virtually teeming with a greater variety of good writing - by a greater variety of good writers - than any other forum in the history of the species. That juxtaposition begs us to simply ignore books like these - easy enough in Freeman's case, far harder, far sadder, in the case of the author of Winter's Tale.

OK! Everybody get some water, marshal your outrages, and gird your loins! The Best is yet to come!


Kevin said...

God doesn't read graphic novels?!?

Next you're gonna tell me that the Easter Bunny doesn't listen to hip hop!

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Sam said...

Yay, the best time of the year! And that you're getting some 'Year's Worst' spam is just icing on the cake. I like the new categorization system - very handy.

Sam said...

Oh, god, I just figured out that the rep from the tuberculosis website found you because of the recent post on Keats' death. Hee.

Anonymous said...

Sooooo well done this year Steve! And where can we find Sam Sacks' best and worst lists?

steve said...

Oh, Anonymous, you're such a kidder! If you click on over to Open Letters and spend an hour or two reading Sam's essays, you'll see what an incredibly searching, meticulous, careful reader he is. Compared to him, I'm Judge Roy Frickin Bean (or, as it would be put in one beloved other venue, an Old Bailey Hack). You can expect his 2009 Best/Worst list sometime around mid-2020, I'm guessing.And it'll have about fifty qualifying footnotes.

steve said...

That having been said, thank you very much for the praise! I must say, I myself am enjoying the expanded format even more than I thought I would.