A Good Example of Critical Reading
As an acquisitions editor for a book publishing company, one of the subjective tests I use when evaluating a book proposal is whether the author’s writing pulls me along, or whether I have to push myself to keep reading. Andrew Ferguson, senior editor of The Weekly Standard, is certainly in the former category. His writing is sharp, funny, and seemingly effortless. A few years ago on vacation I bought his Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America and read it in one sitting—something I virtually never do (though perhaps that’s because I live in the “land of Lincoln!”).
One of the interesting things he has been doing over the past few years is reviewing books by and about President Obama. For example, in 2007 he reviewed Obama’s Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. In 2010 he wrote a devastating review of Dinesh D’Souza’s NYT-bestselling book, The Root of Obama’s Rage. Now he has written a review of Edward Klein’s recent, critical bestseller, The Amateur; David Maraniss’s soon-to-be-released positive book, Barack Obama: The Story, and returns to Obama’s own books and some of the possible fabulist elements.
I was most interested in his thoughts on Klein’s book, since it seems to be especially popular among conservatives. Some conservatives never criticize fellow conservatives, and of course liberals do the same with those in their own camp. Ferguson models a good example, in my opinion, of being an ideologue without being unduly partisan. He’s a thinker, not a hack. In other words, he is an equal opportunity offender against bad writing and thinking.
Here is his take on Klein’s book:
Pure Obama-hatred was enough to shoot the book to the top of the Times bestseller list for the first three weeks after its release. . . . He knows how to swing the sledgehammer prose, combine a leap of logic with a baseless inference, pad the paragraphs with secondary material plucked from magazine articles you’ve already read, and render the most mundane details in the most scandalized tones.
Sure, “Michelle now likes to pretend that she plays no part in personnel decisions or in formulating policy.” We’ve all heard that. And you believe it? “The facts tell quite a different story.” Facts are stubborn things! In truth, “Michelle’s aides meet regularly with the president’s senior communications team and select public events that will maximize and reinforce the Obamas’ joint message.” Wait. It gets worse. Klein has made a source of “one of Barack’s closest confidants.” And here’s what this confidant reveals: “Barack has always listened to what she has to say.” A direct quote, from source’s mouth to author’s ear. I wonder if they met in a darkened garage.
Klein has a problem with his sources—or rather, the reader should have a problem with Klein’s use of his sources, whoever they are. Blind quotes appear on nearly every page; there are blind quotes within blind quotes. The book cost him a year to research and write, he says proudly—”an exhilarating experience that took me to more than a half-dozen cities, either in person or by telephone or email.” (I visited several cities by email just this morning.) And it’s clear that all this dialing, emailing, dialing, emailing, bore little fruit. “I was at a dinner where Valerie [Jarrett] sat at our table for nearly 10 minutes,” another anonymous source divulges. “And I wasn’t particularly impressed.” Now it can be told. The book’s big revelation comes from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He claims, in an on-the-record interview with Klein, that in 2008 an unnamed friend of an unnamed friend of Obama sent Wright an email offering him $150,000 “not to preach at all until the November presidential election.” Republicans may seethe, but it’s odd that they would suddenly take the word of Jeremiah Wright, a publicity-seeking narcissist who says AIDS was invented by the government.
With such thin material, the only way to keep a book like The Amateur chugging along is with gallons of high-octane contempt. Yet because Klein provides so little to provoke fresh outrage—or to support the theme that Obama is “something new in American politics,” a historically unprecedented threat to the Republic—readers will have to come to the book well-stocked with outrage of their own. They will be satisfied with sentences that begin with an appeal to phony-baloney authority (“According to those who know him best”) and continue with assertions that no Obama intimate would make to Edward Klein, on or off the record: “inept in the arts of management . . . make[s] our economy less robust and our nation less safe . . .” and so on. And they’ll admire his ability to fit his theme of Obama’s villainy to any set of facts. After his election, for example, Obama didn’t take a wise man’s advice to disregard his old Chicago friends—a sign of Obama’s weakness and amateurism, Klein says. A few pages later Obama and Valerie Jarrett are accused of ignoring their old Chicago friends—a sign of coldness and amateurism. Klein gets him coming and going.
I find Ferguson’s perspective here refreshing and instructive. When we think about “reading books critically,” we often think about applying this to books that we are predisposed to find problematic. But as long as we are not pragmatists and utilitarians, we will care about the truth—not only in its conclusions but also in how one gets there.