Two shelves of political books at Jay's Bookstall in Oakland await an ignoble demise. "The day after the election they're all going to be remaindered," says owner Jay Dantry, as though speaking of loutish relatives who have overstayed a holiday visit. "Within the first three days after a book comes out people might ask about it, but then it dies off. It's all product now, that's all."
The product he's referring to is the tsunami of political nonfiction that's washed over bookstores this year. In fact, two shelves is a small set-aside compared to some chain bookstores. At a Barnes & Noble near my Boston-area house, the influx of new political titles are now stashed both on and below the two tables that formerly held all the store's new non-fiction titles. The manager says that the books have spread throughout the store into other sections as well, an occurrence she compared to a quickly growing mold.
This is an especially unusual turn of events considering that only a few years ago the majority of dissident and political books were put out in small numbers by independent presses, which produced mostly bland "topic" books, such as Noam Chomsky's unusually popular 2001 title, 9/11.
Clearly, the post-9/11 atmosphere and the war in Iraq contributed to the surge. The public's frustration with the at-times uncritical mainstream media coverage of the Bush administration and the war on terrorism also contributed.
Now it's hard to escape political books. They've become more than just written material and represent an author's ticket to speak on radio and perhaps TV. A well-published title can launch a political career, ignite national debate and maybe even influence this year's election.
At the beginning of the year, Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, followed by Richard Clarke's Against all Enemies and Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, were phenomenal bestsellers. Especially with whistleblower books like Clarke's, the authors and their defiant assertions often substituted for leadership previously expected from our politicians, journalists and media personalities.
Popularity isn't limited to inside-the-Beltway tell-alls. Liberal humorists such as Al Franken and Michael Moore, and right-wing sirens including Ann Coulter and Michael Savage, became hugely famous, and this year spawned a rush of thriving sub-genres from all points of the political spectrum.
Bestsellers such as MoveOn's 50 Ways to Love Your Country: How to Find Your Political Voice and Become a Catalyst for Change appropriate the language and form of self-help titles, one of the largest new political sub-genres, accounting for hundreds of thousands of books sold, from Arianna Huffington's Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America to activist works such as the eponymously titled How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office.
The veritable avalanche of cribbed genres includes children's books (The National Review Treasury of Children's Literature), picture books, reference books (The Bush-haters' Handbook), how-to guides (George Lakoff's new handbook against conservative arguments, Don't Think of an Elephant!), historical works and so on. Don't laugh, but in late September Bill O'Reilly is publishing a book for young adults, The O'Reilly Factor for Kids: A Survival Guide for America's Families. (No doubt advocating a populist, small-minded brand of libertarianism coupled with frenetic shouting at any family member stupid enough to disagree with you.)
But what type of impact are these books having? Are they fostering understanding and informed debate, or simply widening the chasms between political groups? Does the best-selling Unfit for Command really represent legitimate political criticism -- or the familiar, smearing screed that panders to people's worst impulses? Ironically, the huge interest in political books that academics and intellectuals couldn't have dreamed of a few years ago often ends up resembling a horde of drunken Pirates fans yelling obscenities at the umpire during a game in which the team is doing badly.
One danger is that the entertainment value will become more important than the thinking itself. But the recent surge of political titles hasn't meant a decrease in the number of excellent critical and diagnostic books -- just an increase in noisier celebrity polemicists who have at times eclipsed traditional authors with less camera or radio presence.
How far will the partisan deluge seep into other genres? If the apocalyptic Christian right can score big with the Left Behind series, how inconceivable is a tendentious conservative narrative found in, say, a romance novel? Or a thriller? Books like Oliver North's conservative-cum-religious political thrillers seem to fit that category, yet perhaps someone with a mote of writing talent will take up where the disgraced military man began. Perhaps all this heralds the revival of literary political novels or novels of ideas, which fell out of fashion during the late 20th century.
On the other hand, Jay Dantry, like many people, believes the end of this particular chapter has arrived. "I can't wait until it's over," he says. "I need that shelf space for more important things."