OFF THE GRID

Books Are Bad for You

Nov 23, 09 | 8:41 AM   byMichael Wolff
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A few years ago, writing about the book business and how dumbed down and craven books had become—and pathetic, designed only to sell and then not selling—I wrote the line “books suck,” subjecting me to much middlebrow opprobrium.

I’d like to revise that line: Books are evil.

They’re pernicious. They represent themselves as being one thing, when they’re insidiously the opposite.

Sarah Palin, for instance, did not write her book and, what’s more, it is not meant to be read like you read a book. It’s a preposterous image, someone actually sitting down and furrowing their brow over the Palin work. But this is hardly a point just about Palin. Her comrade in arms, Glenn Beck, has a similarly treacherous book he’s selling—that is, one that is neither written nor read. It’s a model followed by almost every politician with ambitions or entertainer without something better to do. (The president’s first book was, arguably, an exception; his second was not.)

This sort of book once fell into a particular publishing category called a vanity book—it was not to be taken seriously. It was to be dismissed, or tolerated only with the clearest condescension.

But now the most valuable and therefore well-looked-after books are vanity publications.

If there are still good books, they are largely irrelevant to a form and business that is largely about the creation of the artifact—identifier, symbol, leave-behind, brand enhancer.

Books are a sales tool. They’re propaganda.

And they’re fake. A lie. So many are just simply not written by the people the publisher tells you they are written by. Somebody should sue.

It’s a sleight of hand. A bait and switch. It’s not that there is anything wrong, or at least out of the ordinary, with salesmanship or promotional copy, or with even saying you wrote what your ghostwriter wrote. This is the stuff of speeches, advertising, and testimonials. What’s insidious here is that these forms, which are understood to be insincere and a confection, are now in the guise of a book, which is understood to be genuine and substantial.

And, indeed, people are fooled. And, to the extent that readers are not fooled (and reading just a few paragraphs of these books, if you do read them, ought to raise questions), the form of the book itself is undermined. Books lose value and meaning. Real readers come to understand there are fewer and fewer real books.

Publishers publish fake books because, if you have an “author” who has some larger cause to promote, the publisher gets free promotion. What the publisher has traded for such an abundance of promotion is its own brand. HarperCollins does not really believe Sarah Palin has written a valuable book—or even that it is really a book, not in the way that HarperCollins has historically understood books, or in the way that people have counted on HarperCollins to have understood a book. But, these are desperate times and real books are an increasingly equivocal proposition anyway, so almost all publishers are willing to engage in the strategic mix-up between real books and fake books.

This really isn’t quibbling. We have created a giant system of national agitprop, in which books and the book business have become one of the most effective tools.

Literate people should boycott books.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.
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