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June 24, 2008

Changing Reading Habits

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

About a year ago I wrote about how I no longer could get very motivated to read books by or about currently active politicians.

Today I thought about Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism, wondering when the paperback edition might come out and whether I should buy a cut-priced hardcover edition (they seem to cut prices when the paperbacks arrive) or simply buy a paperback. Or perhaps I should wait until the paperbacks go on the remainder shelf and pay even less. Then I began to wonder whether I should buy the book at all.

Here is my dilemma: (1) I enjoy reading Jonah's stuff; but (2) I think that I pretty well know his basic argument and many of the supporting examples he probably used. Add that to the fact that, since retirement, my book buying budget is a shadow of what it used to be. Ah, the indecision.

A larger issue is that it's no longer politician books that don't seem worth reading, it's almost any book about contemporary politics and issues. Why is that?

One reason might be because I've been around long enough to have witnessed a good deal of what goes on under the political sun.

Or maybe it has to do with the Internet. Thanks to political blogs and websites, it's easy to stay current with issues. And even issues that were current months back while a political book was being written are fairly easy to remember. So why pay good money for a book that about things you already basically know?

Nevertheless, political issues books keep pouring off the assembly lines like those political biographies I grumbled about earlier. So there must be a market for the stuff out there, and I'm just not part of it.



posted by Donald at June 24, 2008


"One reason might be because I've been around long enough to have witnessed a good deal of what goes on under the political sun."

It seems the older I get, there are more and more books (and other media creations) that seem like I've seen them, yes, I know exactly what you mean.

I'm reminded of Bill Murray's exposition to Andie MacDowell in the restaurant in Groundhog Day:
"maybe God really isn't all-powerful, maybe he's just been around so long he knows everything that's going to happen."

Another result of age is that novelty is harder to experience, no? As Bill spake, "Different is good."

Posted by: Yakking Guy on June 24, 2008 7:01 PM

I've o.d.'ed on political blogs and I feel like I'm in a rut, reading-wise. I only seem to enjoy old favorites, like, well, this site.

*I'd love to read something that was totally light and utterly low key, or, alternatively, lightly-sparkling! Does anyone write about contemporary life and politics in that way? It would be a nice change of pace for me.....

Posted by: onparkstreet (MD) on June 24, 2008 7:19 PM

Oh, I mean, besides this site, of course! Seriously, it's the lightness and low-keyness I like.

Posted by: (onparkstreet) MD on June 24, 2008 7:20 PM

I find overtly political books almost unreadable because they are essentially frivolous. Now don't get me wrong, there's nothing frivolous about politics since politics boils down to the fight over how we are going to live. But books about the nuts and bolts of the political life are really a species of shoptalk: immensely consuming to political junkies and the political class (or caste) but missing the forest for the trees.

For the past half century our politics has centered around the response to the '60s, the '60s standing for the revolt against or assault on traditional values. The struggle over whether the '60s shall prevail or be (partially) beaten back has been addressed by writers, but not in overtly and narrowly focused political books (or at least none that I'm aware of). I can think of two novels, Saul Bellows' Mr. Sammler's Planet and Philip Roth's American Pastoral, that tackled this issue at both the gut/visceral and analytic/general/abstract levels. They therefore qualify to be considered political books in the profound sense of that term.

Maybe this can only be done in the novel form. Or maybe I'm wrong. If there are strictly political books out there that present politics at more than the shoptalk level I'm open to hearing about them.

Posted by: ricpic on June 24, 2008 7:34 PM

For those of us who believe we've heading on the wrong path for decades now, there's really not much left to say. As you mention, the internet allows you to keep tabs on what the arm-wavers are blabbing about, which is never anything new, so there's no need to read their books.

Posted by: Mickie on June 24, 2008 7:55 PM

I highly recommend Mencius Moldbug's reading list. Also check out his reactionary history reading list.

These books are both fascinating and will help you understand how our political system went so wrong. As a bonus, many are so old they are free via Google books.

Posted by: Libra on June 24, 2008 9:23 PM

The barrage of political writing on the net really wore me out. I even wore myself out.

The net revealed the ugly truth about politics: there isn't much to say. Name an issue and within a day, the pros and cons have crystallized and after that nothing ever changes. People just keep hammering at the same thing repeatedly.

I've got to disagree that politics determines the way we live. The outcome of political battles is tremendously overrated. Although I'll probably vote for somebody other than Obama (who, I don't know), I don't expect an Obama presidency to be the end of the world, or to have much to do with my life. It doesn't matter that much who's president, except to those who get their hands on the spoils.

In fact, I think that we need to overcome this obsession with politics as a form of salvation. To me, that's the moral message of the 20th century. Politics as salvation failed miserably.

I find myself much more interested in economics, both personal and external. I wish I'd paid more attention to economics when I was younger. I've been reading a great book I bought in the airport in Hong Kong: "Chindia: How China and India are Revolutionizing Global Business."

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 24, 2008 9:58 PM

What I need is a good read. It's what I always need. If an author chooses good subject matter, is enthused by it, knows heaps and lets that knowledge come through clearly, I'll read with interest. 'Marshalling the facts', wrenching events and personalities to fit 'themes': these tend to be the sorry occupations of cult academics and their supposed opposites, the drek sensationlists. Shakespeare's inaccurate yet invaluable histories, especially Henry IV without the jokey bits, are still a good read, and I think it's because all sorts of contradictions are allowed to co-exist, without explanation, in one character. More of that needed, maybe?

Re Liberal Fascism: I'm a conservative who's only too ready to believe in the authoritarian tendencies of the left. (I might have to own up to a smidgin of sympathy for Franco, but I can see nothing conservative in the art-obsessed, vegetarian, nature-worshipping Hitler and his cranky pals.) But - no! - I don't want the American or Australian left defined as Fascism. My father supported the Australian Labor Party all his life. He also spent not five but seven years mine-sweeping in the southern oceans, only returning to his legal career in '47. He prospered, as others, during the long years of conservative Menzies government, but remained steadfast in his support of Labor. Go figure. I'm not going soft here: for me, there will always be an element of self-loathing and authoritarianism associated with the left. A conservative author might draw that out, explain it a little...but without drawing Adolf moustaches on the constitutional leaders of liberal democracies, (and, yes, I do know what naughty fellows most of them were).

Pound away at the left as hard as you like. But calling one's opponents fascists's a bit leftist!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on June 24, 2008 10:08 PM

Shouting Thomas, I agree that politics is vastly overrated and that economics determines the way we live to a far greater degree (and within economics, technological progress). But there is one aspect in which politics is crucial: immigration and multiculturalism. It's hard to think of any government policy that has as huge impact on the life of the nation -- both on how it lives and even whether it lives, ie on its very existence -- than policies on these questions.

Posted by: Mickie on June 24, 2008 10:50 PM

"I highly recommend Mencius Moldbug's reading list. Also check out his reactionary history reading list."

A strong second for this suggestion. I find the Mencius site to be consistently interesting.

As to the purchasing of these infinitely proliferating political tomes -- left, right, and center -- that are consumed with the "issues of the day." Actually buying them is more like buying a displayable trophy than buying a book one would read for illumination. Goldberg's is a classic case in point. Anyone who reads him consistently knows where he stands and anyone who cared to follow the discussion and reviews of the book not only knows what it says but has read, via quotation, the striking passages of the book.

Hence, buying it would be like scalp-collecting.

Why read a book that confirms what you believe or know when there are so many available that will either challenge your beliefs or teach you about something that you don't know?

Posted by: vanderleun on June 24, 2008 10:59 PM

Liberal Fascism is a pretty superficial work and the author reveals to understand very little about the subject in question. A good author on the topic and someone who has done real research is Zeev Sternhel.

Here's a good review of Goldberg's book by Paul Gottfried:

Posted by: GB on June 25, 2008 12:41 AM

I never read political books. I don't consider them essential to being well-informed since they're just someone's opinion, just like blogs. Once in a while I see one that tempts me and I'll think about seeing if they have it at the local library but somehow I never get around to it.

Posted by: Lynn on June 25, 2008 12:48 PM

That's a good pick by ricpic:
Mr. Sammler's Planet, by Saul Bellow. I remember first reading it as a somewhat idealistic liberal twentysomething. That saying that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality? Well, Bellow mugged me with that text. One of the few novels worth re-reading.

Posted by: James M. on June 25, 2008 6:55 PM

There was a good interview with Goldberg over at It tells you all you need to know.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on June 26, 2008 3:20 AM


If it wasn't for the public library I could not afford to support my reading habit. If your library doesn't have the book that you desire, then ask the person who does interlibrary loan to search.

Like many lifelong readers if I buy a book I'll read it come hell or high water. With library books, if the book doesn't appeal to me after 80 -100 pages I return it to the library.

For those of us on fixed or limited incomes, the public library is a fine (and underused) resource.

Posted by: Mike Doherty on June 26, 2008 8:00 AM

I have the book, so you can borrow it from me.

Posted by: epittenger on June 27, 2008 9:00 PM

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