Americans buy books — they don’t read

What follows may be thought nitpicky and petty. I want to use it as a reminder to myself to observe parallel structure, follow up on what my sentences say, engage difficult themes, and write with a sense of purpose. This is a work in progress: subsequent updates might involve radical changes.

I

With exquisite prose, Matthew Stevenson writes in Harper’s about a Bill O’Reilly book with sections which read like a “grade school paper.” I want to second his remarks heartily: his is a masterful critique of a phenomenon much larger than any one man. But also, I’ve been writing so badly for so long that I want to examine the passage he cites as an example. Maybe I can elevate my writing to the level of a third grader if I absorb the right lessons:

Unlike the coral and jungle of Peleliu, or the remote black volcanic soil of Iwo Jima, Okinawa is a well-populated island full of farmers. Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese. Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders. The verdant fields of okra and eggplant that should be carpeting the countryside have been trampled by soldiers, cratered by shelling and littered with the detritus of war: spent casings, empty food tins, burning vehicles, and, of course, dead bodies. (1)

My first reaction: *gulp*. I know this blog of mine doesn’t have passages a tenth as clear. Of course, if you read those above sentences aloud, it does sound like a grade schooler wrote it. The first sentence jumps from “coral and jungle” and “remote black volcanic soil” to “well-populated island full of farmers.” How one can be so deaf to parallelism is beyond me. Not only does “well-populated island” not fit the formal comparison, but “remote black volcanic soil” clunks along compared to “coral and jungle.” All one has to do is stick to the format one established; a description like “coral and jungle” for Peleliu could be matched by something like “soil and ash” for Iwo Jima.

The attempt to introduce the island as a distinct location devolves into this babyishness: “Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese. Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders.” Stevenson notes that “Its citizenry is a mixture of Japanese and Chinese” is factually wrong, but regardless, what purpose this detail serves I have no idea. It sounds like the kind of thing people scribble when they have no experience whatsoever in writing or media. To be clearer about why it’s so terrible, note that it follows a sentence which tries to get the reader to imagine the locale. That prior sentence has not been allowed to develop into anything more significant. O’Reilly and his co-author move on, knowing dollars await them. Each of his stupid books populates The New York Times bestseller lists for months, and he knows he can get away with anything. Americans buy books — they don’t read. Thus, the tragedy of a people completely overcome by fear, a fear so great that death feels a better escape than the arrival of the Americans, is treated this way: “Many have already committed suicide rather than succumb to the invaders.” At this moment, I will simply comment that if this sentence does not seem to parallel the ones previous, or build on them in any logical way, you’re not alone in that opinion.

O’Reilly’s writing (and by extension America’s aesthetic standards, ability to grapple with history, ability to reason) gets substantially worse when it could almost be good. Ultimately, this is dogshit: “The verdant fields of okra and eggplant that should be carpeting the countryside have been trampled by soldiers, cratered by shelling and littered with the detritus of war: spent casings, empty food tins, burning vehicles, and, of course, dead bodies.” Like dogshit, it does have a purpose. It does get the reader to imagine what was lush farmland being devastated by war. The reader knows the middle of a battle is being discussed. Also, there is a need for cleaning, because it is a public health hazard. As quasi-poetic hack work, it undoes itself with a thud when it ends with “of course, dead bodies.” The sentence itself should never have been written. People killed themselves before the battle started because they worried that the fight and what would result would be worse than hell. Any writer with two cells for a brain knows they have to follow up on that theme, not just throw a lot of details down. O’Reilly’s book, however, is only interested in retelling military legends, centering what narrative he has around Medal of Honor recipients.

The fundamental problem of this kind of writing is that places, people, and things are brought forth without any true sense of purpose. The principle at play seems to be “If I describe stuff, people will think I know what I’m talking about.” My complaints about parallelism and even theme do not do justice to the bigger problem of best-selling authors rambling at length and this, of all things, creating our historical consciousness. “The troops are great” and “WWII was a moral cause embraced by a moral generation” are the type of proposition that do not lend themselves to any serious purpose. They set the stage for media like this. They might ultimately be true, but if they dominate any attempt to come to grips with the past, they’re worse than useless. At least O’Reilly’s schlock has the virtue of being obviously bad, though in this climate, I suspect it lacks even that.

II

You might think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill if you have no familiarity with Mr. O’Reilly or this blog. The former sells a cheap, mythologized version of America to Americans by trying to make anything else look stupid or incoherent. For years, his show was revered by millions. This blog is dedicated to showing that a few words, if not one word, can count for quite a lot. Not every book has to be of superior quality — there is a place for trashy or silly or even just plain bad books — but again, it is remarkable that this guy’s books dominate the best-seller lists, have been doing so for years.

So I want to take a closer look at his rhetoric. In the Preface to this book about the Pacific theater, he quotes Jeremiah Wright speaking of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I puzzled at this for a second, but only a second. Wright argues that America has killed many with impunity, and that there are consequences for this behavior. O’Reilly goes on to say:

It is safe to say that many people around the world had little or no idea what Wright was talking about. Sure, most folks know that A-bombs were dropped and the carnage caused was catastrophic. But, sad to say, the events leading up to the end of World War II are not that widely known anymore. Thus, statements like the one Wright made sometimes go unchallenged. (2)

This is a thinly veiled attempt to flatter suckers, but it has helped radicalize a segment of the electorate. O’Reilly says that most people don’t know much more than nuclear weapons were used. Therefore, if you, the audience, know something more about the use of those weapons, you can challenge America’s opponents. You too can challenge the worldview of those like Jeremiah Wright or those in his congregation who listened to him.

What’s stunning, to me, is how insulting this appeal is. There’s no sense of intellectual challenge. Just “everyone else has forgotten, so if you remember one more detail than them, you can beat them in arguments.” If I hadn’t run into a number of people who think like this, people who think that memorizing the dictionary is the same as command of language, I wouldn’t believe what I’m telling you now.

But the appeal is buttressed by all the other media O’Reilly readers consume. Someone watching way too much History channel can now feel a sense of purpose, not just one of nostalgia. Stevenson mentions O’Reilly’s “drugstore action novel” sound, and it complements this rhetoric. A line about a Marine at Peleliu stood out: “Bausell is tempted to peer up and over the side to glimpse the battlefield, but he keeps his head down. Japanese snipers are known to target the curious” (3). Too much is packed into this line: heroes know not to try to know too much, another race will take advantage of you if you forget your discipline. In another age and time, I’d say I was reading too much into these sentences. Today, I wonder if I’m not reading enough into it. Thing is, if you can visualize yourself there, with the Marine, all the ridiculous stereotypes and nostalgia look like a kind of practical wisdom. Someone who might have something to say about how, at times, the intentions of U.S. foreign policy were less than noble cannot get a hearing. Turning history into fanfiction is weaponizing it, and O’Reilly knows what he’s up to. People aren’t buying O’Reilly’s books because they want to kill their enemies or win elections. But they’re not buying them entirely as beach reads, either. This is part of his “Killing” series where might makes right and right makes might and you, reader of this book, have always been right. You watch the right shows, listen to the right broadcasts, read the right books. There is some kind of militarism, some kind of force, driving these sales.

III

What, then, of America’s historical consciousness? I wouldn’t want everyone to sit and read Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch. I like that stuff, but it’s insane to think them a requirement. Nor do I feel the need for everyone to read and understand the Federalist or have serious thoughts about the New Deal. All of that would be nice, sure, but none of that creates someone open to the past, appreciative of the present, hopeful for the future.

The crudity with which we approach history is “Make America Great Again.” Once, I felt things were better, that America was working as it should. That means America must have been living up to its destiny, that the Constitution, the government, the people, society, and some notion of cosmic justice were all in alignment. Quietly, nostalgia becomes the craziest sort of utopianism. Traditions are invoked as promises, as prophecy, as opposed to what they actually are.

Where historical consciousness starts is with the realization that all of us are the same. The Japanese and Germans acted like monsters in the Second World War in large part because they let themselves be radicalized. The poverty of needing to conquer the world in order to fulfill your destiny should be apparent, you would think, but the truth is that we let revenge fantasies consume us as individuals and as a people. It is certainly true that the gains from globalism have not been spread very evenly. What does it say, though, when white nationalism comes back into vogue, supposedly as a result of economic concerns? Justice is always a matter of proportion, and the failsafe is showing mercy, for when you cannot execute justice fairly, doing no harm is the best course. America’s isolationist rhetoric is one and the same with increasing anger, rancor, and violence. There is no doubt in my mind we will go to war out of sheer anger if things continue the way they are going. We are very manipulable. That war will be dressed up in platitudes concerning manliness and virtue and the sanctity of the homeland. We will be brutal towards minorities, whose oil we have now been told we should steal. When we go to war next time, I’m scared to think who will be the Americans of the Second World War, who will fight in defense of a peaceable world which sees cooperation a good.

Notes

(1, 2, 3) Passages quoted are from Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan. Full citation:

O’Reilly, Bill and Martin Dugard. 2016. Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.