Monday, September 25, 2006

Books I don't intend to read

The first unnecessary book is Louis Lapham’s Pretensions of Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration. I refer to the notice by Jennifer Senior in the New York Times Book Review for September 24. Undertaking no new research, Lapham lets loose a volley of Bush hating. Much of this volume consists of recycled columns from Harper’s Magazine. As Senior notes, Lapham declines to reprint a column in which he “reported on” the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2004. Inconveniently for Lapham, the issue was printed and sent out before the convention took place.

Why did the New Press, Lapham’s publisher, see fit to issue this farrago? The answer is that there exists a body of people in this country who are dyed-in-the wool Bush haters. They will buy and read it, even though the text simply echoes the monologue going on in their own heads. And these are the people who preen themselves on being independent thinkers who are “reality based.”

I yield to no one in my desire to get rid of the Bush administration and the principles that it has espoused. I was strongly opposed to the Iraq war, and have never faltered in this opposition. Yet getting rid of Bushism will require more than name-calling. One must examine and refute the ideas that shape it. Yes, there are such ideas, and unless we can rebut them, the independent voters--whose support is crucial--will not be won over.

Now to unnecessary book number two. Venezuelan President Chávez’ praise of the latest book by Noam Chomsky has vaulted his selection to the near the top of the Amazon lists. Based on his earlier performances, I feel confident that the latest effort by the MIT professor is another scissors-and-paste job. These books are a kind of one-note samba, purveying his never-changing view that America is responsible for all the world’s ills. Well, perhaps not uniquely responsible. for, in Chomsky’s view, Israel is complicit as well.

For all his faults Mr. Chomsky cannot be accused of tilting in favor of Jewish interests. If anything, the opposite is the case. Chomsky likes to defend the regimes of third-world countries like Pakistan that are scarcely friendly to Jews. Notoriously, he wrote a preface to a book by the French Holocaust-denier, Robert Faurisson. Chomsky said he was merely defending the right of the Frenchman to be heard. Maybe so, but couldn’t he have found a more suitable subject for his defense of principle?

The evidence that the Holocaust took place is overwhelming. This information is supported by a large number of accounts and inquiries. These should suffice. But still the deniers rant on. They still have still not been sufficiently critiqued. It may be impossible to shake these irrationalists from their beliefs, but at least one could try to build to build a firewall, protecting new recruits from these fantasies.

Alas, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost does not seem to be among the number of truly necessary Holocaust books. This tome of more than 500 pages is an account of Mendelsohn’s quest to find the true story of the death of the family of his great-uncle in Poland during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

Full disclosure requires me to note that in past years I have been an Internet buddy of Daniel’s. I have admired his excellent style and great erudition. Among other things, he is a scholar of ancient Greece.

As published, however, this book appears to be a mistake. Mendelsohn commits the fault of my graduate students who, in writing their dissertations, recite the entire personal history of their quest to find the answer to the problem they are addressing. What we need is the answer, not a diary of the process required to reach it. It seems that Mendelsohn’s book is also padded with quotations from the Hebrew Bible that do not seem explanatory.

In the course of his own quest Mendelsohn traveled the world, visiting such countries as Israel and Australia, where survivors of the massacres in Poland are living. Yet after all the searching the answer he reaches does not seem to be entirely convincing. It is, though, that the family was killed in two separate actions. In the first the mother and three of the daughters were murdered. The father and another daughter survived a little longer. Details are meager, and as I noted the facts do not seem entirely certain.

Here is what every book author dreads to hear from his editor. "Mr. Author, couldn’t you adequately present your findings in an article of 15 or 20 pages?" Of course, had Mr. Mendelsohn followed this advice he would not have garnered prominent reviews in the New York Review of Books and The New York Times (two).

There is a further question of balance. Were someone to write a book of similar length about the fate of his relatives in Rwanda or Darfur would it receive similar attention? In fact would it be published at all?


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