The Magazine

What About the Book?

As, you know, a book.

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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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?

What’s the wholesale price of a platitude?

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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:

Ultimately, what happens in 2016 should be about what kind of future Americans want for themselves and their children​—​and grandchildren. I hope we choose inclusive politics and a common purpose to unleash the creativity, potential, and opportunity that makes America exceptional. That’s what all American people deserve.

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.

Churchill, of course, was no disinterested party. He had played an important part in the events of which he wrote. His fingerprints were all over some of the war’s most controversial episodes, not least among them the Gallipoli campaign. The reader is aware of this, and the writer does not flinch from it. At the end of the long section of the book that deals with Gallipoli, I found myself more or less in sympathy with Churchill, who was obliged to resign as first lord of the Admiralty when the project failed. I felt that way chiefly because I sensed Churchill was playing straight with his readers. That, as Orwell, no admirer of Churchill’s larger politics, once wrote: “In general, Churchill’s writings are more like those of a human being than of a public figure.”

Then there is the matter of style. Churchill worked on his books, and they deliver, over and over, in passages like this one, concluding the section on Gallipoli:

There was nothing left on land now but the war of exhaustion​—​not only of armies but of nations. No more strategy, very little tactics; only the dull wearing down of the weaker combinations by exchanging lives; only the multiplying of machinery on both sides to exchange them quicker.

Passages like that occur over and over in Churchill’s book, and they do what good writing does—they take over the reader’s consciousness. The distance between reader and subject matter vanishes. But those passages don’t appear on the page because some “book team” (Clinton’s phrase) has engineered them. They come straight from the writer, working hard at his craft. Like this one, in which Churchill writes of the awful Passchendaele battle:

The disappointing captures of ground were relieved by tales of prodigious German slaughter. The losses and anxieties of the enemy must not be underrated. .  .  . But the German losses were always on a far smaller scale. They always had far fewer troops in the cauldron. They always took nearly two lives for one and sold every inch of ground with extortion.

If it is unfair to compare Hillary Clinton with Winston Churchill, then it is also unfair of her and her “book team” to inflict on readers something like Hard Choices. They could have used the money, and their time, on something that would not have been such a waste of ours. Readers deserve better.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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