The new Newsweek’s summer reading issue includes a feature called “Best. Books. Ever,” in which well-known individuals recommend four of their favorite books in their particular areas of interest.
Thus, Melissa Gilbert selects Hollywood memoirs, Dr. Drew chooses Self Help books, and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson scans the universe.
The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward’s area is “Political Scandal,” and, in the style of the feature, his titles are listed without comment under a short headline and illustrated by the book jacket.
Three of his four books are:
All the King’s Men — Robert Penn Warren’s novel about Huey Long — under the headline “How to corrupt a politician.”
In Retrospect — Robert McNamara’s memoir of the Vietnam war — under the headline “If you can handle the truth.”
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — the first volume of John LeCarre’s Smiley trilogy — under the headline “Of and for spooks.”
The fourth is RN’s RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, and the headline is “Dummies’ Guide to evading history.”
RN’s is the only snarky headline on the whole page. Arthur Schlesinger’s worshipfully tendentious biography of his hero Robert Kennedy is called “A Kennedy book with perspective.” And even Hannibal Lecter is cut some slack in the headline for Patricia Cornwell’s selection of The Silence of the Lambs (“So you can root for the bad guy”).
My first reaction was that the headlines for RN and The Silence of the Lambs had been transposed.
My second reaction was: What the hell is up with this and what’s up with Bob Woodward?
But then, recalling my days as a magazine editor, I realized that Mr. Woodward, like the rest of the authors, had simply complied with the request for a list of his four favorite books by submitting…..a list of his four favorite books.
All the additional prose was added by editors and sub editors — whose job is to fill up the space and to make things pop off the page. The chances of the wiseacre who tarted up Mr. Woodward’s list having read any of the books on it are, I’m guessing (but it’s an educated guess), slim to nil. (I’m also guessing that Mr. Woodward is not best pleased with someone else piggybacking a facile judgment —or, more likely, a mindless quip— on his reputation.)
Slim to nil might also describe the number of people who will read this page in Newsweek. And slimmer to niller the number of people who will notice, much less pay any attention to, the headlines above the titles.
But words, like ideas, have consequences, and the mindset displayed in this headline —frivolous, careless, and inaccurate— is disturbing. Magazines have editorial hierarchies whose job it is to catch errors and maintain standards.
One may not agree with RN’s treatment of Watergate in his memoirs. But with more than two hundred and fifty of the book’s thousand pages devoted to it, the author can hardly be accused of quantitative evasion. And qualitatively, as even the unfriendly reviews indicated, he didn’t flinch from addressing all the charges leveled and issues raised by the congeries of troubles known as Watergate.
While the book tells the story as RN experienced it —not, I submit, an unreasonable or unexpected approach for an autobiography— it presents the facts in considerable detail. So, one wonders, who’s the dummy?