What About the Book?
As, you know, a book.
Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
Nobody has time to read these days. Everybody says so, anyway. So in the case of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, is there any good reason to buy the book and read it? Not much, going by the reviews. None has called it a page turner and, at more than 600 of them, you’d like to have a reason to keep turning. Life is short, and there are many, many books still to read.
What’s the wholesale price of a platitude?
Maureen Dowd describes the book as “inert, a big yawn.” Others are kinder, but none is enthusiastic. There is no review that makes you think that you can buy this book and count on it to deliver the satisfactions enjoyed by literate people.
Now there is absolutely nothing contingent about this. Mrs. Clinton wasn’t broke any longer when she wrote the book. She wasn’t trying to turn out a bodice ripper to pay some bills in the fashion of William Faulkner when he wrote Sanctuary. She got close to a $14 million advance for this book. She could have found herself a little studio somewhere, shut down the phone and the email, splurged on a top-shelf coffeemaker and a comfortable desk chair and gone to work, making it her goal to write the kind of book that, in the contemporary argot, would “change people’s lives.” A book that an ordinary reader, not consumed by the politics of the moment, would find pleasure and enlightenment in reading.
She chose, manifestly, not to do that, and the choice says something about her. Nobody can write a good book as the result of merely having decided to. But one can make an effort not to write a bad book, and Mrs. Clinton is certainly intelligent enough to recognize flaws in a book that would keep it from being good, or great, and might even make it bad.
You don’t, for instance, write about how Canada “our northern neighbor is an indispensable partner.”
Readers hoping for a book that will be a kind of companion for many hours aren’t looking for the sort of thing they can get from any canned political speech. Which is to say, passages like this:
Even great books include the occasional clunker. But an accumulation reveals either a tin ear or, worse, contempt for literary standards. If the author couldn’t even take the trouble to clean up this kind of mush, one thinks, why should I bother to keep up my end and read the damned thing?
And then there is the matter of proportion. You don’t include in the same autobiographical work a chapter on how much you love your mother and your daughter along with one on the controversial murder of an American ambassador who worked for you. You don’t do this, that is, unless your aim is not to write a good book but one that contains material that you can place in Vogue to soften your image along with something that will work in Politico and help “position” you for a coming political campaign.
Constructing (as opposed to writing) a book that can be excerpted in both Vogue and Politico will likely result in one that recalls the Winston Churchill line: “Pray remove this pudding. It has no theme.” Churchill had an actual pudding in mind, but the line can be applied to Hard Choices and to many less-celebrated books belonging to this unfortunate genre. In fact, Churchill himself provides the proof that it is not some iron law of nature that such books should be a bore and chore to read, that it is possible to write a political/historical memoir that succeeds as a book and even a work of literature.
This thought occurred to me during the week when all the talk was of Mrs. Clinton’s book. Why not, thought I, read an actual book that is right for the moment? This is the 100th summer since the Guns of August, and Churchill’s The World Crisis is still one of the indispensable books on that catastrophe. So I spent the week rereading the one-volume, abridged edition.
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