Unbooks clutter shops, shelves and even libraries -- but you can defend yourslef


Beware of unbooks. They can dull your mind, dilute your spirit, waste your money and bow your shelves. Worst of all, they can steal precious time from an all-too-short life.

An unbook is a volume, identical in appearance to a true book, that contains nothing significant or usefully memorable that the reader does not already know.

Most unbooks are nominally written by persons who could not write a book on their own without care and feeding from one or more professionals, ranging from editors "without whose help" to out-and-out ghostwriters.

Most unbooks could not exist in the market were it not for the notoriety or noteworthiness of the ostensible author for reasons that have little or nothing to do with books or literature or, in many cases, even the subject of the volume. Unbooks do not even have the substance of a solid op-ed page article, which usually runs 1/100 as long.

Among the "nonfiction" best sellers listed near the top of this page are two unbooks, to my certain knowledge, and a couple of suspects I have not submitted to the test. In last week's longer New York Times best seller list, seven of 15 listed volumes were or appeared to be unbooks.

The appropriate civilized and humane response to an unbook, of course, is to unread it. By great good fortune, this is also the method of determining whether a volume is an unbook, a book, or a marginal case, which we might call maybebooks. (Maybebooks include presidential memoirs, however boringly diarrheic, and volumes that instruct you how to assemble, feed and clothe your lawn mower.)

Unreading revealed

Unreading requires you to open the volume at random in three separate places, attentively reading not less than one full page. Then read the first and the final paragraphs of the volume. On this basis, determine whether it meets the criteria of the unbook stated above. Sometimes you may be fooled. In such cases, go back to the beginning and read the thing. It may be a useful maybebook. Or it may have become a book, a real one, behind your back.

The unreading exercise can be achieved while standing in the aisle of a book shop. Applied rigorously, it can save a person hundreds of thousands of precious hours and tens of thousands of dollars in the course of a literate lifetime.

In part to test unreading techniques, I have just carefully read a quintessential unbook. It is "We're Right, They're Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives," by James Carville (Random House/Simon & Schuster. 183 pages. $10/paperback).

Mr. Carville is a political consultant. He strikes awed admiration in the hearts of many people of the left and affection in the heart of at least one right-winger, his wife, Mary Matalin.

There is nothing to despise about Mr. Carville or any other writer of unbooks. Unbooks are not bad, not evil. They just are not books. To damn them for that would be the equivalent of cursing a house cat for not being a race horse. There are places for cats, but one of them is not running nine furlongs with a small, wiry human astride their rib cages.

Mr. Carville makes a living, and a very good one by his own declaration in his unbook, designing cosmetic tactics for liberal Democratic candidates. He could hardly be expected to write a book that repudiated either the technique or the ostensible substance of his trade and still prosper.

Fine. But there also is no reason to expect Mr. Carville has any persuasive insights into the meaning of life, or the grand sweep of history, or whatever it is you go to books for. This volume does nothing to refute that expectation, which might as readily apply to any stand-up comedian, television provocatrice - or tabby cat.

Miles Davis, the great jazz trumpeter whose autobiography, "Miles: The Autobiography," was published in 1989, was interviewed about some of the truly raw and wicked things the book said about other musicians. Mr. Davis' response: "I haven't read that far yet." Classy.

Firm convictions

But Mr. Carville obviously has read his stuff: Sloganeering is what he does. He points out within the first couple of pages that he is convinced only a large federal government can deal with the challenges of human nativity, delivering mail, halting or healing floods, combating leprosy, easing race relations, providing education. The rest of the volume doesn't add much.

It is a basket of sound bites, quips, little bits and pieces of tacked-together factoids, a sort of USA Today in chapters, but polemical. It is punctuated throughout by recipes for potato salad, thumbnail dismissals of a variety of non-believers, clumps and knots of "data" presented to clothe some passing prejudice in the rainment of statistical authenticity. No middle ground. No analytic process.

To meet the unbook authorship tests, Mr. Carville's "acknowledgments" cites Lowell Weiss as a "collaborator" whose name deserves credit on the cover (though it does not get it - splitting the billing is no longer the fashion among the unauthors of unbooks). He cites Dalit Toledano as a major aide. He names four other researchers or collaborators, two editors and then a huge line of other people who "contributed ideas and research."

Case closed.

So what do decent, right-thinking people do about unbooks? Put on hoods and march on libraries and book shops and burn the things? No, that's what the other guys do, or yearn to do. The market deserves what it gets. But at the very least, don't be fooled into wasting your time thinking that you will learn from these things. And be a bit suspicious of publishers who specialize in them.

Pub date: 3/10/96

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