Stevereads 2011 Worst Books of Year: Nonfiction!

Even I must admit that there are worse things in the literary world than indifference or even incompetence. In the realm of books as in all other realms, we must always be alert for actual, intentional evil, for writers using books as semi-respectable veneers behind which to do evil. This, too, is a use to which books have been put forever – they’re rich grounds for it, since they work on their readers’ silent, absorbing minds directly. Indifference will never be the problem in this case – there are keenly-whittled purposes behind virtually all of these books, eagerly-sought goals of persuasion. No, these books, most of them, are counting on the reader to be indifferent, unguarded, too trusting – or perhaps too numbed by the sheer onslaught of new books every season. A watchdog is needed, and Stevereads happily volunteers for the job.

10. The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt – If Fox News made a docu-drama of this list, #10 would be accompanied by the voice of James Earl Jones saying ‘when historians go rogue…’ – and we’d have occasion to use it a couple of times before our list was done. In this case the historian is Stephen Greenblatt, whose monumentally overpraised Renaissance Self-Fashioning at least contained copious quantities of cogent cogitation. His latest book, The Swerve, claims that an Italian Renaissance humanist you’ve never heard of translated an ancient Roman poem you’ve never heard of and thereby changed the way the Western world thinks about itself. This nonsense was probably confirmed to Greenblatt by a couple of year’s worth of graduate seminars, and Greenblatt should be reminded of one fact: those grad students want a recommendation from you. They’d say the account books of Lucullus’ kitchen-maid changed the way the Western world thinks about itself, it if would curry favor with you. Also this: it’s unseemly for tenured professors to lunge quite so brazenly for popular attention.

9. Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson – As the Romans learned from the Franks and the Britons, nothing comes easier to a great nation in decline than empty triumphalism. In order to guarantee your book will sell at conservative PAC conventions, you’ve got to do three things: a) back-load a thorough-looking bibliography in impressively small type (so your readers will feel they’re partaking of a work of scholarship), b) make sure your central thesis, despite overwriting, can easily be boiled down to one line – “We invented everything,” “We police everything,” and of course “we’re better than everybody else” are all acceptable, and c) be openly nostalgic for a past your readers either incorrectly remember or are likely to believe they would have enjoyed had they been around. Pine for that past regardless of the heavy load of misery it carried for non-affluent, non-white non-men. In other words, hijack historical inquiry and enslave it in the cause of nationalistic jingoism. We’ll see this a few times on our list this year, and this book start things off, assuring us that the world really didn’t have a clue until Western democracies came along and started prioritizing the brain power of Harvard professors. The fact that this thing is getting a fat book contract instead of fretful looks from rant-bored relatives doesn’t say much good about the state of 21st century publishing.

8. On China by Henry Kissinger – It we grant that the blustery reductionism of our last entry doesn’t quite qualify as evil, then this book is its first appearance on our list this year, in this case evil in the form of our ultimate corrupt living grey eminence, Henry Kissinger, whose new tome On China banks on his extensive official contacts with the dictatorial leaders of that country a generation ago – and that same tome is counting on readers forgetting (or forgiving) Kissinger’s cash-and-carry willingness to suborn and abet those dictatorial leaders and all dictatorial leaders everywhere (that particular charity began at home, of course). China’s economic dominance in the world today lends an aura of prescience to Kissinger’s bloated meanderings here; China’s embrace of pragmatism-driven national evil further darkens the aggregate crimes against humanity for which Kissinger is more responsible than any living person. Given the shameless times, I expect his next tome to be On Good Government.

7. Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny by R. H. S. Stolfi – The author of this nauseating book is quick to point out that his efforts to get at the man behind the long-standing characterization of Hitler as a monster of pure evil are not to be construed in any way as some kind of neo-Nazi support of Hitler … merely a contention that such characterizations do little to help us understand the man. Which is like saying you’re against guns but a big fan of bullets. Tout comprendre rend très-indulgent, as Stolfi knows perfectly well – and as shouldn’t be attempted in those rare cases where the man is a monster. Years ago I said we were only a decade away from a biography of Hitler by a respected writer who made him out to be a somewhat wayward and badly misunderstood European statesman, and while this book isn’t that biography, it lays the groundwork as thoroughly as that groundwork can be laid (right down to the studio-photograph on the cover, perhaps the most nauseating thing about the whole production). Take it from somebody who’s read everything ever written about the man: in Hitler’s case, much to the world’s misfortune, there was nothing beyond evil and tyranny.

6. Known and Unknown by Donald Rumsfeld – The title of evil idiot Rumsfeld’s memoir – yet another in the seemingly endless stream of George W. Bush-team memoirs designed to say nothing, admit nothing, analyze nothing, reflect on nothing, and most of all apologize for nothing (we’ve got another one on this list) – comes from his famous formulation about the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns that face any army in the field … a formulation he made right before backhandedly slinging mud at his own army in the field, an army at that moment in the middle of a fight he did more than anybody to create and less than anybody to prepare them for. And yet, the tiny spark of grit this vapid book might have had if it had been written, as it should have been, in a prison cell is of course missing, replaced by the compulsive justifying of the knowingly guilty. This justifying will be familiar to any readers old enough to remember the similar post-disgrace writings of Richard Nixon, the Dark Lord whose acolytes (as mentioned, another of them is on this list) finally got a chance to wreck the world.

5. Washington by Ron Chernow – As far as intentional evils go, wilful lack of jugement is a fairly venial sin, and it’s probably the worst we can attribute to formerly esteemed biographer Ron Chernow, whose enormous new pile of hagiography on George Washington effectively cancels out the meticulous scholarship and worth of his previous book on Alexander Hamilton – and leaves critical readers wondering if this guy can write decent history again. Washington certainly isn’t that – it’s sloppy, repetitive, and borderline tendentious in its reading of virtually incident in Washington’s life. That a book is so bad would be reason enough to include it on this list, but, as noted, that it will, through its author’s hitherto unsullied reputation, convince people by means of its badness is even further justification. There are plenty of great Washington biographies in existence, should the reader be curious. This one is to be avoided.

 

4. In My Time by Dick Cheney – Intentional evil comes roaring back at us, however, in this entry, as the architect of the George W. Bush administration writes his memoir in the comfort of his property and physical liberty, admitting nothing, regretting nothing, apologizing or nothing. The very corporate-lounge anodyne tone of this shameless book bespeaks a tellingly alert legal team, and it stands as a bland literary indictment. There should be literal indictments instead, for a man who laid waste to foreign countries and domestic liberties in a single-minded pursuit not just of power but of actual evil (after all, you don’t really get any more powerful by opening up thousands of acres of virgin wilderness to logging and mining and drilling – you just get to smile over all the dead animals, I guess). The stately procession of their guiltless memoirs is the literary perp-walk of our time.

 

3. Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Being George Washington by Glenn Beck – One of the hallmarks of evil is its determination to enlist the unwilling in its cause, and you can’t do that any worse than by enlisting the dead, as these two ranting, scatterbrained books by two third-rate stand-up comedians try to do. The problem here is one that tends to beset all organized evil: the most evil people, the ones at the top of their professions, have surrounded themselves with sycophants, so they come to believe they’re more than what they are. Pea-brained blowhard O’Reilly is a carnival barker, but with sycophantic encouragement he’s been able to imagine himself as a historian, and likewise the class-buffoon Beck, and each has reached into the past, picked a figure they think they like, and made that figure a sock-puppet for their own prejudiced rantings. So this is anti-biography, where the subjects can neither err nor surprise. And the books reveal themselves as the printed equivalent of those creepy framed photos where some nobody from Tulsa drapes his arm around a visibly uncomfortable visiting star so it looks to the unwary like the two of them are old, bosom friends – when in fact, O’Reilly and Beck are brainless morons who haven’t cracked a book since grade school – and who’s research assistants/ghost writers should feel very, very ashamed of themselves.

2. Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero  by Chris Matthews – The greater the living currency, the greater the evil. It’s one thing if third-rate stand-up comedians slur the memory of long-dead men – it’s bad, but its not as bad as when third-rate stand-up comedians slander a man quite a few living people still remember – as is the case here, where circus performer Matthews trades on his own celebrity to dress a diatribe up as a discussion and pass the whole steaming mess off as biography. Needless to say, this JFK never does, says, or thinks anything Matthews doesn’t want him to – certainly never to the point of looking at this execrable book an grunting “bullshit” in that particular Hyannisport drawl.

 

 

 

1. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker – The 20th century was no stranger to the time-tested technique of lying with statistics, but the 21st century is already adding to a streak of naked effrontery that might put even the age of such heavyweight liars as Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon to shame. In the 21st century, lies alone are no longer quite sufficient – instead, they’ve got to be big lies, the bigger the better. So a U.S. President goes in front of a nation and raises the fear of a ‘mushroom cloud’ about a country that had trouble grinding bread, and a champion U.S. athlete, caught on film illegally partying with minors, not only makes a non-apology (“If my alleged actions were badly misconstrued enough to give a possibly negative impression, then in that extremely unlikely event, I would express regret,” etc.) the following week but does so, as many journalists present attested, while stoned. And a popular … what to call Steven Pinker? ‘Popular scientist’ is clearly wishful thinking; ‘popular researcher’ has palpably never been true – popular self-promoter Steven Pinker in his new book opts to cap a career of smiling mendacity by telling what may very well be the two biggest lies of them all: that mankind is becoming less violent, because mankind is becoming more intelligent. To support both these hysterical claims, Pinker pivots and swoops, cherry-picking delusions and misinterpreting crapulent ‘studies,’ all intent on denying the staggeringly obvious: that humans – fresh from the 20th century, whose barbarisms would have left any previous century slack-jawed in horror – are not only growing plungingly dumber (Pinker proudly brandishes standardized test scores – he needs to get out more; he could learn a lot from eavesdropping on any given Boston subway car for fifteen minutes – and he would clearly benefit in the long run from being vigorously wedgied by somebody who considers that a legitimate argumentative technique) but are also, connectedly, growing breathtakingly more violent. If we define ‘genocide’ as the wilful pursuit to slaughter every individual of a certain group, regardless of immediate military or economic interests (or even in contradiction of those interests)(i.e. an all-consuming, self-consuming hatred), then there were four in the 19th century. In the 20th century there were 15. In the 21st century’s slim extant decade, there have been two – with 90 years still to go. Writing about why this is happening – bad parenting or the all-pervasive seep of toxic chemicals into human air, food, and water – would be legitimate though pyrrhic. Writing a book – and lyingly buttressing it with cooked-book guestistics – merrily assuring your fellow Cantabridgians that the world their little Ariadnes and Ruggers will inherit isn’t, in fact, a rapidly-devolving ‘Lord of the Flies’ nightmare of violence and stupidity is an endeavor of purest and deepest evil. It’s the product not only of warped science and statistics but warped historicism, a parody of professionalism and a mockery of the sociologist’s craft – and it’s Stevereads Worst Nonfiction Book of the Year.

 

9 Comments to Stevereads 2011 Worst Books of Year: Nonfiction!

  1. deb's Gravatar deb
    December 15, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    what a great list of bad books – although in all honesty I wouldn’t be tempted to bring most of them into my home – so kudos to you for wading through all that tripe on our behalf. I might have been tempted by #10, so I am forewarned. Many thanks.

  2. JC's Gravatar JC
    December 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Ron Chernow’s book had to be pretty darn bad to appear in last year’s list, this year’s list, and get a negative review all of it’s own on the site proper. I’ll keep a wide berth!

    Personally, I quite liked Marcus Cunliffe’s little book on GW. What are the other good ones?

  3. Don Hackett's Gravatar Don Hackett
    December 15, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Hilarious and razor-sharp analysis, so well written even I raised a laugh reading it aloud. It clarifies the need I’ve felt to shake the dust out of my head while reading any other review of your #1.

  4. December 20, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed your article very much. Nice to find a book reviewer who doesn’t pull his punches when the work deserves it. Most of these I wouldn’t have read (I’m not American or even a very political creature) but you always hope for some nuggets of enlightenment. I am sorry to hear that Pinker is wrong about there being a decline in violence – one always hopes that mankind will pull its head out of its back passage long enough for its vision to clear and to choose a higher road.

  5. Roger Clark's Gravatar Roger Clark
    January 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    So you’ve ‘read everything ever written’ about Hitler. That’s quite a claim! There are tens of thousands of books devoted to Hitler and the Third Reich. And you’ve read every one! Frankly, I don’t believe you.

    I will say this – to portray Hitler simply as a ‘monster of pure evil’ is stupid. You’ve learnt nothing since 1945. Evil people are more subtle and devious than you pretend. That’s why they get into power. Your lack of understanding blocks off knowledge and understanding. You think villains are simple to identify like a character in a horror movie.

    But they’re not. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who organised the Holocaust and the death camps, was a charming young man – a model student at school and university. As a teenager he even read books to blind old ladies! There was nothing in his youth – or for that matter Hitler’s – that suggested they would become genocidal murders. The same was true of most Nazis. When young they appeared quite normal. So what went on in their minds? Why did they change? We must find out because villains keep getting into power. Hitler wasn’t a one off. He was just one of the most spectacular examples of the sort of person who frequently gets into power with devastating results.

    Do try to be more subtle in your reviews. Your approach will lead to straight to the gas chambers – again!

  6. Chris S.'s Gravatar Chris S.
    October 10, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    At least O’Reilly had the small degree of modesty to put his subject on the cover of his book. Obviously Glenn Beck sees Glenn Beck as the most important thing in a book ostensibly about Washington.

  7. Valentine Gale's Gravatar Valentine Gale
    December 20, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Roger Clark, for taking some of the hot air out of the review of R.H.S. Stolfi’s book. Of course, such a book is bound to cause howls of indignation: nobody can challenge years of orthodoxy and come away unscathed. For the reviewer, denigration was a safe bet. As he said (recommending the false pronunciation of the name Cunliffe): “That always gets the best mileage.” Perhaps he had the same effect in mind when commenting on Niall Feruson’s “Civilization”: “Pine for the past regardless of the heavy load of misery it carried for non affluent, NONE_WHITE MEN.” If Steve hadn’t spent all that time reading “everything” ever written about Hitler, he could have unearthed something about the lot of, e.g., the English working class men (women and children, too), all very, very white under the grime of poverty. Charles Dickens or George Orwell would have done nicely.

  8. September 24, 2014 at 1:16 am | Permalink
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