I can’t stand unfinished business.
Trying to put a neat bow on this project has been bothering me for months, but as much as I try, I can’t seem to get there. I realized today why not: because while the campaign books from this year will slide further into obscurity in the 1c “Used—Acceptable” section on Amazon where I found them in the first place (and for most of them, good riddance), books keep happening, and keep playing the old roles and finding new ones in our politics. The popular media wisdom is that the publishing industry is dying, the American electorate is getting dumber, and the only thing that matters anymore is Twitter, but there are more campaign books than ever before and they continue to not just make news, but create it. In some ways, they provide a voice to people otherwise unheard.
But more on that in a moment.
If I had to sum up anything that’s come out of this project, it’s this: we deserve better books from our politicians, but we also have a responsibility to better scholarship on them. The point of this blog has been that although there are high points, touches of unexpected humor and humanity in almost every book I read here, they have also largely been condescending, manipulative, contrived, and not reflective of really any respect for the writing and editing process—which is to say, not reflecting much respect for their readers. Writing political books should be about living up to your citizen-readers, not talking down to them. Relatedly, the point of my thesis was that we don’t study political books well enough. The ubiquity of political books shows that they are a cultural practice, not the inspired genius of great people at particular moments of their lives. Nixon wrote books after America rejected him partly to joint the club of world leaders who also wrote books, and talking about writing was bedrock for the relationships that shaped Cold War diplomacy. Candidates write books because you need books to campaign, and the why of that need deserves some thought. The fact that these are objectively bad books—bad art, bad sources—isn’t an excuse to ignore them, when they’re part of the fabric of American politics.
As I’ve said before, I like books and I like people, and this was a project about books and therefore about people, so this has been tremendous fun. Dark, sometimes, especially in the deep dives on violence and language, on two-dimensional women, and when things got too ugly heading into the conventions [and my final Msc exams] at the same time—and certainly now, in a brave, harsh new world after all the campaigning and electioneering for 2016 is over and out. Books go on, and books continue to speak in new ways, and I want to keep talking about that.
I’ve put up a new wordpress (if it ain’t broke…), to be a place where I can talk about political books on the internet after 2016. As always, hit ‘follow’ when it hovers in the bottom right corner of your browser to subscribe. I’ve posted a roundup of news from the past week over there to get us started, focusing on how book sales are turning into a powerful tool for citizens to critique their elected leaders in real time—with the help of John Lewis and George Orwell. I’m going to try to stay on top of book news going forward, and tackle some deeper-dive projects there too, including some special guests (see image below). All around, I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes.
I owe absolute bottom-of-my-heart thanks to a lot of people:
-Everyone who’s read this, and even more to the people who shared it around, and even even more to the people who took the time to talk to me about it. Y’all made it feel worthwhile, which made it happen.
-Dad, for being the Master of the Tangential Idea on the road trip where this crazy project started.
-Mr. Craig Fehrman, who was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about books and how to think about them.
-Mr. Roger Alford of the Kentucky Daily, who was also kind enough to talk to me about writing, and to publish a column on the project.
-My adored housemates last year, who were always gracious about navigating around the stacks of books and putting up with my reading selected Huckabee passages aloud/missing social functions to hole up in my room writing about Ted Cruz.
Thank you for joining me here, with all your grace and courtesy and good will and openness to reading some #bookthoughts on some candidates you probably didn’t like. I hope to continue on with many of you in the future.